Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Dec 23, 2017 10:17 am 
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Spielberg's The Post depicts a moment from which Americans can take heart, when the newspapers stood up to President Nixon and told the truth about Vietnam. Nixon wanted to run the country like a dictator but the press, led by the New York Times and The Washington Post, asserted its right to tell the truth about the way the government had been lying - over four administrations - about US interference in Vietnam and the failure of the war.

Newspapers are what The Post - with its very name - celebrates, with their cub reporters, their editors, their newsrooms, copy desks, vacuum tubes, linotype operators, their bustle and clatter that computers have hushed and the Internet has usurped. And their owners. Perhaps it's fitting then that this story highlights the hereditary monarch of a paper, Katharine Graham of the Washington Post. But let's begin by noting how far this movie's skewed off center from the national and political story, because it's based on a memoir by Mrs. Graham.

Let's also note that All the President's Men, the earlier movie about what was soon to bring down Nixon - the Watergate scandal - went to the opposite extreme, because it virtually erased the role of Katherine Graham. Here we learn about her intimacy with Kennedy and McNamara and her central importance to the newspaper. It wouldn't have printed the Ellsberg revelations when Nixon had blocked the Times from doing so without her much-pondered say-so. She had to ponder and then confront her deep and powerful friend Robert McNamara, because of her closeness to power, and the danger that clashing with the law (had the Supreme Count not sided with the press) could have brought down the public offering of the paper to shore it up financially that she was negotiating with Wall Street bankers. This movie provides strong hints that Mrs. Graham's initiatives could inspire women - now as then.

It's fun to watch Tom Hanks as Post editor Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham do their thing mano-a-mano. But the real heros, or victims, of the story are the Vietnamese people and the American soldiers who died while four US Presidents covered up that America was waging a war its rulers knew it could never win. Only a bit player here, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) was of course the real engine behind all the action, the man who risked jail by photocopying and leaking the masses of the government reports later known as "The Pentagon Papers" that revealed ugly truths about the US in Vietnam.

We spend much time among the elite here. We learn Katherine Graham's feelings about taking over the newspaper after her husband's suicide (as well as her insistence that it was that) and about her troubles with bankers in putting the paper on the stock market to keep it financially afloat, than about the efforts that first got Ellsberg's theft turned into the Times' first revelations. We see Mrs. Graham visit Mr. McNamara in his bright, glamorous Washington house, and we see her impressive abode and one of her big dinner parties. We hear a brief excerpt from Walter Cronkite's interview with Ellsberg on June 24, 1971, but we see almost as almost as much of Bradlee's little girl selling lemonade as we see of the whistleblower.

This is the story the filmmakers want to tell through Josh Singer, who cowrote the 2015 screenplay for Todd McCarthy's Spotlight, the fabulous journalistic expose story about priest sex abusers in Boston. (Here he is working with Liz Hannah.) Thanks to generally smooth coordination and the mastery of Spielberg this movie is a well-oiled machine. A little too much so, with Hanks and Streep in the majority of the scenes. They sputter and crackle, but there's an undercurrent of joviality, fed by years of triumph and accolades, that lulls us. Keep the edge? Not quite. Nobody really is taking big chances. Not many in the mainstream are around anymore insisting America could have "won" in Vietnam, or who could even say what that might mean.

Enjoy the palpability of things, Graham's fluttering kaftan at her dinner party, the clack of manual typewriters, the photocopies scattered all over the floor with reporters and editors pouring over them. (They'd lost their page numbers, it turns out, when the "Top Secret" was cut off the bottom of each.) Enjoy that sound of that vacuum tube whisking "copy" down to the "composing room." When Hanks turns to somebody and says "this is fun," he's right. Newspapers, in 1970, were still fun. Are they now?

The rich and privileged have challenges too, as Mrs. Graham did at this crucial point, when she did the right thing and sided with the reporters and the paper and let the "Pentagon Papers" be printed in the Washington Post despite being told repeatedly by lawyers and bankers to do the opposite. We get that Mrs. Graham took a big chance when she snubbed the bankers and gave the order, after midnight, to start printing the "Pentagon Papers." The scenes where Streep enacts this executive courage are the theatrical high points of this economically constructed film.

But surely given her upbringing and her legacy this choice was a no-brainer, and it's hard putting such "suffering" across as such. See Norman Soloman's story for The Consortium News oneline about Graham's self-censorship due to her intimacy with high national security figures, and her anti-union and anti-labor stances evidenced in her memoir.

Apart from its bias toward privilege and management, what keeps The Post from being a great movie, and makes it stay just an immaculate and enjoyable one, is that it's more a smooth performance than a risk-taking or a fresh and original work of art.

The Post, 115 mins., 22 Dec. 2017 (limited), 12 Jan. 2018 (wide release). Metacritic rating: 82%.

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