Steven Spielberg’s The Post, furiously filmed and edited while the director’s Ready Player One was in the waiting room, lives and dies on the dialectic tension between its directors’ childlike enthusiasm for the newspaper industry and his curiosity for the realpolitik which both deflates enlivens the dream of an easy or natural democracy. Spielberg, even the liberal, is essentially defensive about democracy’s ability to surpass itself. He introduces himself into the strand of Enlightenment thought which approaches democracy’s thought-project with tempered appreciation, exposing its limits and its strengths and ultimately emphasizing the social contest and progressivism which stems from within the democratic liberal tradition rather than outside it.
Which is to say: Spielberg’s cinematic project is possibly at the expense of more radical forms of social critique which might come from outside the pall of mainstream democracy or ask more complicated questions about the nature of freedom of the press and its capacity for social change. The Post is Oscarbait entertainment, meaning that it does not seriously engage with the meaning or nature of freedom within liberalism or the US, nor does it expose the contradictions of democracy which oppress and liberate often in tandem. But the vivaciousness with which Spielberg believes in his framework inflates democracy all the more so, at least momentarily convincing even the most stalwart of skeptics that there is, however mediated and however staggered and however imperiled and however complicit with oppression, some sense in which the US political and social framework exposes the open wounds that fester within it.
Or, at least, provides a space for alternative perspectives to pry ajar the various oppressions of power which percolate out of statecraft and form America’s social basis just as much as any sense of equality or freedom. If Spielberg’s perspective is naïve, his passion rather astonishingly assaults his innocence and questions his own presumptions of opportunity throughout, showcasing just how embattled freedom truly is. In this sense, Spielberg’s film not only represents but embodies a particular framework of democracy, one where constant self-questioning is the ultimate ideal to which any system, or any film, ought to aspire. His film is committed, in other words, but reasonably self-critical about its commitment. And luckily for Spielberg, these questions are animating, not distracting. Even more than Ready Player One, where Spielberg’s camera perused the cinematic and cultural landscape of his own making with a curious but distant fascination for its entropic potential, radiating the endless curiosity of an academic observer analyzing the work of his friends, The Post is plainly an ode to Spielberg’s heroes. Not to his contemporaries, in other words, or his students, but his forebears, and Spielberg is obviously excited by the prospect of studying, filming, even becoming them.
Now, these heroes are not necessarily Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) or Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), respectively the editor and owner of the Washington Post who must decide whether to print the Pentagon Papers which reveal the US’ pernicious, foolhardy, and self-serving involvement in Vietnam at the risk of government censure. No, The Post fairly transparently bleeds for the soul of the classic newspaper film, much as Spielberg’s War Horse lost its head for the sentimental war picture, Lincoln was giddy for the hard-headed, no-nonsense Americana biopic, and Bridge of Spies was head over heels for the spy thriller. Of course, as with Lincoln, the best of that lot, The Post is not uncritically fawning, nor eyes agape, although it is certainly exuberant about the equation of the media with democracy, both in its empowering and imperiled dimensions. For Spielberg, not only the press media but the cinematic media of the newspaper film, like all of these classical Hollywood genres, is a facsimile of democracy: a collective contribution to a national self-critique, a power-complicit but possibly power-imploding contest between many participants and factions dedicated, at their best, to exposing and critiquing the truth as well as questioning the valences of “truth” and how it bleeds into fiction. For Spielberg, cinema is and can be a democratic endeavor.
Which is only a complete truth insofar as cinema also replicates democracy’s limited, factional, myopic tendencies, its frequent inability to reach its best self, and sometimes its hopelessness as to what that best, most egalitarian self ought to be. As such, it is no surprise that The Post doesn’t escape unscathed. Sometimes its exuberance is to its detriment, namely when Spielberg is less interested in thinking through these cinematic, journalistic, and democratic spaces and the push-pull of democracy and, most problematically, the conflation of “the press” with “freedom of expression”. Only once, and only in its extreme mental periphery, does Spielberg’s film let consider the possibility that democracy may not merely be a pas de deux between deluded politicians and the heroic press, that the “governed” – not the “governors” – as the Supreme Court states late in the film – might actually be able to take matters into their own hand rather than relying on the backrooms of the Washington Post to represent them. Although it isn’t the film’s project, it occasionally name-checks the public only as uncritical receptacles of the press’ goodwill.
The Post’s self-skepticism is also less thoughtful on certain issues than others. (On the former, see gender, which the film seems to remember is a “theme” only when it suits the screenplay best, and about which it is anodyne but self-congratulatory, not seriously invested in teasing out the complications of gender as a question when the film can simply promote its own cinematic good-will).
Still, Spielberg does shade his film’s otherwise zesty elan with a shroud of uncertainty, a sense of skepticism that the particular achievements manifested in the film don’t exceed one moderate uptick on a cyclical incessancy of opportunity and repression, even if this film doesn’t expose itself to the chills of self-skepticism that Lincoln did. And generally, The Post mines and textures itself with the often shambolic, frequently unmeasured multi-directionality of the democratic process, which is as best as we probably could hope for from a film that essentially amounts to Oscarbait. Exceedingly well-mounted Oscarbait in this case, and for the most part extraordinarily un-stuffy about its narrative and tone, willing to entertain the press as an active participant in society rather than foregone conclusion or a taxidermied totem to the good-old-days. Spielberg’s enthusiasm for this material is palpable from the first frame of this film, from the giddy way his camera riotously zips and zooms through the newspaper halls and the noirish backroom offices of American diplomacy, to the unvarnished, ricocheting aplomb of the conversations.
Even better is the script’s willingness to hop-skip over information in a way which both respects its audience and allows the film to continue to slide around and coil us up. Throughout, shockingly for an Oscarbait picture, the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer dismisses obvious exposition dumps in favor of backstory teased out through inductive conversations. Or, even more frequently, exposition pieced together at askew conversational angles through bent moments from characters in disagreement with one another, sharing piecemeal detail as part of their perspective rather than because the film is omnisciently educating us on the totality of the matter at hand.
It’s wonderful stuff, mostly. This is still Spielberg, a populist to the core of course, so the film turns the knob to 11 for a flagrantly cartoonish post-climax where Richard Nixon’s specter alights the screen in a ghoulish silhouette, a haunting and paranoiac premonition of a decade of cynicism. It’s an image which too-cleanly encapsulates the cinematic stereotypes about the decade which Spielberg rose to prominence in. And that’s after the film’s flagrantly heart-on-its-sleeve denouement, a feverish tribute to newspapermen and women, and a tribute which – as is true of populism in America throughout history – is too keen on hand-waving rather than seriously investigating the American public.
Still, the film’s conclusion, like the film as a whole, is also a pugnacious, quick, and quick-moving Sparknotes summary of the hard-hitting “entertainment for adults” cinema of the ‘70s, a return to the very strain of cinema which Spielberg and his friends are sometimes overly-accused of suffocating when they went “big” in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. For all their simplicity, Spielberg’s Jaws and George Lucas’ Star Wars share the wounded and beaten-down textures and disheveled shadings of many more obviously “mature” films from the ‘70s, suggesting not a clean bifurcation of ‘70s auteur cinema and ‘80s producer-gilded entertainment but a continuum. A continuum that slid toward the wrong end over time, to be sure, but with The Post, Spielberg capably reanimates the specter of the adult cinema which he grew up on, matured next to, and sparred with. Again, it’s Spielberg, which means this film is in certain respects too enamored with “the American way”. But it’s also abnormally introspective, even frosty in its inquisitiveness, albeit never unwelcoming. It’s a solution of tempered passion: both a crisp, towering obelisk to freedom of speech and an active, piercing shard in its stomach lining.