More noise than signal

The Post

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Leaked by one of the authors, Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers detailed the extent to which the U.S.A. had been monkeying with the situation in Vietnam well before entering conflict openly, its reasons for doing so, and perhaps more shockingly, the government’s honest assessments of how well, or rather badly, the war was going. The New York Times started to publish stories culled from these in June 1971, soon drawing legal bother from Nixon’s administration.

Meanwhile in Washington, editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, played here by Tom Hanks, is trying to move his paper’s reputation from a regional concern to a major player on the level of the Times, and is disappointed to have missed out on this. He encourages his staff, in particular assistant editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) to find out where this came from. He eventually does, meaning a headache for publisher Katharine Graham, played by Meryl Streep.

Still unsure of her position as publisher after the death of her husband, she’s trying to balance the mission of the paper to uncover stories just like this and to protect the institution from the financial harm that seems to be a real possibility, coming just days after a launch on the stock exchange which could prompt skittish investors to back out of the business-saving deal. Her family, advisors and the Post’s legal team are firmly against publishing the story, Ben Bradlee and the editorial team insist that it go out. Graham must make the call, and deal with any repercussions.

It should come as no surprise by this point that Steven Spielberg knows how to put a film together, and while I’d not count myself amongst either’s most ardent fans, Hanks and Streep give good performances amongst an excellent supporting cast. The period detail seems on point, and it looks and sounds every bit as slickly professional as you’d expect from a crew like this.

On paper, The Post is a very good film, but it left me pretty cold. Not entirely so – it’s well on the right side of average – but I couldn’t find much to hold my interest. There seem to be long stretches that reduce to someone saying they should publish, then someone saying they shouldn’t, then another person saying they should, and then I nodded off for a bit. Quite literally. It’s been a long week, and the middle stretch of this, where the decisions are being formed and that’s really the heart of the character development for Graham in particular, are really rather dull.

There’s a little more interest for me in the first and final acts, when we’re still trying to uncover what the mystery story the Times is sitting on was, and then the actions taken by Nixon’s administration in response. But that middle stretch? The questions at the heart of the film and the supposed relevance to today’s blighted media hellscape, and the buffoon currently running the USA? Super-boring, entirely under-examined and not even remotely entertaining.

So, where does that leave The Post? For all that, it’s a well made film, and I can’t imagine anyone watching this and feeling like they’ve wasted their time with it. But I can’t imagine that we’ll be thinking much about it in ten years, in five years, or next year. It’s a fine film, but it’s a minor work for all involved.

Get to it eventually, but not worth making extraordinary efforts to see.