Steven Spielberg might have rushed a bit too much to get his movie about the Pentagon Papers to the big screen.
When you think about Steven Spielberg movies, you think excitement, thrills, powerful performances — all done over a wonderful score (often by John Williams).
Sadly, many of the elements that make a Spielberg movie so memorable are missing from “The Post.”
The story focuses on the Pentagon Papers — documents that military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked that looked at US involvement in Vietnam spanning four presidents — and how the press, and The Washington Post in particular, brought the information to the American public.
To tell it, Spielberg takes us inside the newsroom of The Washington Post in 1971. The paper, run by editor Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks), is constantly playing catch-up to The New York Times, and that includes with the Pentagon Papers, which The Times breaks first.
But after the Nixon administration obtains a federal court injunction against The Times to force it to stop publishing stories, Bradlee and his editors believe they have an opportunity to get on the story. Reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) tracks down Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) who gives him a portion of the papers, and the race is on to report the findings before the government attempts to stop them from publishing, too.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the paper’s publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) is faced with trying to keep the paper afloat through it all.
This is further complicated by the fact that Graham is close friends with secretary of defense Robert McNamara, who is the one who commissioned the Pentagon Papers as, he said, a record for future administrations to study.
If there’s one thing “The Post” (opening in limited release on December 22 and then wide next year) does well it’s capturing the struggle that comes when personal relationships and hard journalism. At the time, The Washington Post was known for its favorable coverage of President Kennedy, with whom Bradlee was close. “The Post” screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer capture the struggle both Bradlee and Graham had playing the Washington politics game while being fair and honest.
But there’s a lot the movie can’t pull off. The flow of the story has a lot of false starts, the John Williams score isn’t as powerful as his other legendary pieces for the director, and there are a couple of moments that are probably the lamest I’ve ever seen in a Spielberg movie.
The Spielberg movies that made him famous have popcorn elements like a crazed shark, aliens, or dinosaurs, though a major theme is still often people coping with everyday life. But in recent years he’s veered more into straight-up dramas. The results have been mixed: “The Terminal,” bad; “Lincoln,” good. “The Post” is one of those “very different” Spielberg movies.
At times feeling like a stage play, “The Post” is fueled by the performances of its incredible cast — including Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Alison Brie, and David Cross — but often the scenes drag on too long.
There are numerous scenes when Bradlee barges into Graham’s house and the two go into deep conversation. We get quality Hanks-Streep screen time, but it puts the brakes on everything.
Then there are the scenes when plot points are achingly hand-fed to us, like a scene in which Ellsberg is making copies of the volumes of files that make up the Pentagon Papers (which also drags on a few beats too long). There’s a point when we hear him, in voice-over, reading the names of the four presidents on the cover sheets he’s copying, though we can clearly see the names on screen. This is followed by archival footage of those presidents. These are all great ideas, but don't work when put together.
Then there’s a scene toward the end of the movie when the camera gets in tight on Carrie Coon’s character after she hushes the newsroom and repeats a Supreme Court judge’s summary on their ruling. It’s not just the biggest eye-roll of this movie, but I can’t remember a bigger one in any other Spielberg movie.
But Spielberg finds gold in scenes when Streep’s Graham character becomes firmer in her role as publisher — like when she stands her ground while breaking the news to McNamara that she’s going to run the papers. There's even a bit of a Miranda Priestly from “The Devil Wears Prada” swagger to her when informing the board that The Post is running the papers.
The movie is strongest when nothing is said at all, and DP Janusz Kaminski's work shines. One such scene shows Graham walking up stairs that are surrounded by female secretaries, and we follow her as she goes through opened doors to a room filled with men.
I’m extremely conflicted with “The Post.” There are some very powerful moments. And the movie is timely with what’s going on in the country today (a rarity for narrative studio movies). But the latter might have led to its downfall. The speed to get the movie out the door may have prompted choices that, with more time, would have been thought out better.
“The Post” isn’t a waste of your time, but I was hoping for more — at the very least a little more of that something extra that makes Spielberg movies stand out.