The Post: The marvels of film craft and Meryl Streep

Posted by Kaahon Desk On January 14, 2018

Films dealing with newspapers or newspapermen are hardly anything new within the framework of popular American cinema. Dating back to bona fide classics such as His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940), Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951), All The President’s Men (Alan J Pakula, 1976) or the recent Oscar winner Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2016), Hollywood has time and again addressed the significance of the Fourth Estate in the context of the larger democratic imagination. Steven Spielberg’s The Post, thus becomes the latest film within an enviable canon, and also arrives at a significant moment as the freedom of press continuously comes under threat in the wake of the Trump administration.

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The film looks back on the infamous chapter of American History when senior analyst Daniel Ellsberg(Matthew Rhys) leaked volumes of classified documents which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, to be published in The New York Times. The documents were highly damaging to the administration as they detailed decades of clandestine US involvement in the Indo-China conflicts and Vietnam and straightforward admissions stating that the war at Vietnam was a lost cause for American troops. When the administration’s deception becomes public on the pages of New York Times, the government swiftly brings in a court injunction stopping the paper from further publication. At this moment, the cause is taken up by The Washington Post, led by the firebrand editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and senior journalist Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk). Bradlee convinces the owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) to publish the documents, despite the fact that she had just put the organization on the stock market and that her family had nurtured a longstanding friendship with US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). What follows is a tense situation as Kay Graham fights her battle with her board of trustees and her merry band of editor and journalists face the wrath of the Nixon administration.

Setting aside the content, what immediately captures the attention is the sheer craftsmanship Spielberg brings to the table. A seasoned veteran of 50 years of filmmaking, Spielberg’s assured direction, almost comparable to a Grandmaster with his chess moves, is reminiscent of the golden years of classical Hollywood filmmaking. What precipitates is almost an accurately measured, near perfect narrative experience. Janusz Kaminski’s camera work deserves a special mention in this regard as he turns the film into a handbook of framing, composition and blocking. Each and every conversation scene is pitch perfect in its design and execution; taking into account the power relations between characters, the hierarchy of knowledge among them or just the sheer battle of wits and nerves, things come alive in simply the way the subjects are placed in the frame, the way the camera moves and the final subject positions at the end of the scene. He also makes simple yet effective use of backlight, giving sudden autonomy to certain characters, just by placing a white bouquet or a photo frame in the background and using the reflected light. A meticulous sound design, particularly with characters resorting to rapid fire delivery and thus overlapping dialogue, oftentimes in the background, not only results in a sense of urgency in the aural texture but also gives the necessary rhythm to the well-paced screenplay.

It would be indeed unfair to talk about this film without mentioning the effort of the actors. Meryl Streep (once again) proves why she is considered something of a first among equals, irrespective of President Trump’s evaluation of her skills. Her nuanced portrayal of a social elite with the right measures of vulnerability who struggles with responsibility and ethical burden is a sheer marvel to watch. By merely using a glance or a smirk or at times a pause in between her lines and her star persona, Streep turns her character into an interesting mélange of being believable yet iconic.The Postalso brings a remarkable ensemble of actors who comprise the supporting cast. Interestingly almost all of them are major Television stars including Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons and Bruce Greenwood among others. It was disappointing to see actresses like Carrie Coon and Sarah Paulson wasted in bit roles, almost reduced to a mere bearer of news or a voice of reason in individual scenes. However, the biggest letdown has definitely been the heavily mannerized performance by Tom Hanks. Right from his eye movements to his pursed lips and a drawling speech, Hanks looked ill-at-ease all throughout, desperately trying to mimic classic star personas such as John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart in an attempt to bring a shade of brash confidence to his character.

All said and done, The Post remains a Steven Spielberg film through and through, in every sense of the term. In the same vain as The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, Amistad, etc.,The Post too is an instance of history reduced to a narrative of personal glory as he prioritizes sentimentality over the problematization of history. If it is Spielberg’s skill which makes the film good, it is also Spielberg’s limited world view which stops it from becoming great. Nonetheless, given its content, The Post should be considered to be a notable film because of its topicality that cuts across democracies everywhere (especially India) and also for reaffirming the faith in the very basics of film craft.

Arup Ratan Samajdar
An avid cinephile, he completed his master's degree in Film Studies from Jadavpur University. A keen admirer of Classical Hollywood, the many New Waves and Japanese cinema, he has been writing film reviews, criticisms and essays and articles on various cultural topics. Currently, he teaches an undergraduate course in cinema at Bhawanipur Education Society College, Kolkata.

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