By John H. Foote
Sure, one of them was for Best Picture, but just two? The Post (2017) was acclaimed by most film critics and thought to be a major contender for Best Picture and Director, but when the nominations were announced the film, easily one of last year’s finest and most important was mentioned just twice. Shocking? Unjust? Yes, to both. After screening for critics, it won Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress from the National Board Of Review. The accolades were tough to come by after that.
I remained stunned at the fact Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017) was treated so poorly by the Academy. No nominations for Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay, or Best Art Direction? It felt awfully like a slap in the face to Spielberg just for getting the film done so well, so fast, as though that old anti-Spielberg jealously was rearing its ugly head again within the ranks of the Academy. It felt cowardly on the part of the Academy, as though they feared the wrath of Trump by nominating or awarding the picture.
Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017) was the film North America needed at that moment, an intelligent yet understated primal scream for the truth, for the importance of the truth in the news, for the news medias duty and responsibility is to report the truth, no matter how difficult it might be. Not since All the President’s Men (1976) has a film about journalism been so vital, so necessary, and so utterly brilliant. With the sitting President routinely lying, then lying again to cover up his lies, with Trump throwing out accusations of fake news, the need for such a film was now.
The obligation of the press is to report on government, the obligation of government is to permit a free press, to allow the telling of the truth by telling the truth. The Trump campaign lied from its beginning and is still lying.
It is one of those films that seems to speak to us all, right now, about what is happening in the world, the directing and writing possessed of an urgency that demands we listen.
Spielberg brought to the film an urgency, a sense that something important was about to be stifled and only the press could make it right. The question was, could they and with the potential cost, should they?
Since ascending to the office of President, Donald Trump has managed to make a mockery of the office and frankly himself around the globe. Knowing the media neither liked him or trusted him, he first attacked them, claiming they reported fake news. This is of course absurd, as the news we hear is researched, confirmed, then researched again before it goes on the air or to print. What Trump worries about of course is that the deeper they dig, the more they could get on him, and I suspect that is a very deep well. We know he lies, we know he makes things up and declares them to be the truth, just because he says so. Should a man like that, a maniacal, power hungry narcissistic buffoon, be President? In the days since he took office the news network CNN has become Trump TV, each day filled with “what did he do now”? The press should follow Trump, ignore the bans he places and continue digging; he must be exposed, he must be monitored, whatever secrets he holds close must be known because he is a danger to us all. In his own way, he has become the biggest reality TV star.
Spielberg’s film does not deal with Trump directly, but the issues within the film, set in the seventies are as timely, as urgent as ever, ringing of a truth we need in the press.
In the seventies, the Pentagon Papers fell into the hands of both the New York Times and the Washington Post. Faced with the difficult decision of publishing what amounted to secrets of national security, the Times lost their battle in court, President Nixon flexing his muscles and power. The infamous Pentagon Papers detailed how Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, especially Johnson lied to the American public about the war in Viet Nam, and the subsequent escalation of that conflict. Clearly the Nixon White House did not want those facts published, fearing repercussions with an election year looming. Nixon directed his counsel how to handle the situation, and indeed veiled threats were part of that package.
The Post (2017) had come under new ownership, Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) taking command after the death of her husband. Fiercely interested in making the paper the best it can be, she entrusts it and editorial decisions to Ben Bradley (Tom Hanks). Graham is faced with the decision of challenging the White House and printing the papers which explore the escalation of the war in Viet Nam despite the government knowing the war was futile and lost. Though she wisely listens to Bradley, and her offices of lawyers, only Bradley knows she is going to do what her conscience tells her. The more they piece together exactly what the papers contain, the more they realize how important it is they publish.
Plunging us back into the Seventies, when copy was written on typewriters, when the newsroom bustled with activity and noise, we watch fascinated as writers create without the internet, making phone calls, digging into a story to finds its truth. There is a need to trust who you might not wish to trust, so you back up what they tell you with as many facts as you can dig up, hoping you have the truth. Here Mrs. Graham has a vital decision to make. Should the American people who would re-elect Nixon in a stunning landslide, know about his decisions regarding the most unpopular in the history of the United States? Should they know that their President, and the President before him knew that they could not ever win the war in Viet Nam? Why did they remain? Economics.
But should the American public know that? The answer is of course, but with power of the White House breathing down their necks, threatening ruin, what do you do? History shows that she made the right decision, and a year later two reporters began digging into a burglary at the Watergate Hotel that would reach into the Oval Office and bring down Nixon.
What is there left to say about Meryl Streep? Easily the greatest actress in film history, she must now be considered the greatest actor…period. As Katherine Graham she is of course astonishing, coming into a man’s world late in life but making no bones about the fact she was to be dealt with seriously. Initially she is openly mocked by the men who work for her and her own Board of Directors, their thinking how could a woman do a man’s job? Digging in, her intellect spinning, she demonstrated exactly how formidable she truly was. Refusing to back away from the White House, she uses the constitution for her right to publish those papers, and she is right in doing so. The actress was nominated for Best Actress for her work, her twenty first nomination. I imagine, as being anti-Trump, she loved making this film, knowing what the film was saying has great resonance.
As Ben Bradlee, Tom Hanks has a distinct disadvantage in that Jason Robards played the part in All the Presidents Men (1976) and won an Oscar, along with every other critics award for his powerful performance. It is almost a reminder of how a great Hanks makes the part his own and is equally superb, different, but equally brilliant. Knowing the story they are sitting on could alter the history of the country, but aware of the governments ferocious protests, he must walk a careful line, he must be sure and present it to Graham cautiously, truthfully. Cautious but smelling a huge story his newsman sense wants to see it a go, but his respect for Graham is front and centre, he does not want her bullied or humiliated. Hanks has the courage to portray Bradlee with a mean streak, something he was known to have, and bring into play when necessary. Bradlee proved to be ruthless a year later when the Watergate story broke, which of course led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
And that is precisely what Trump fears, that the reporting of the truths, the truths of his inner corruption, his inner circles corruption and misdeed will bring him down as it did Nixon. The difference is, Nixon was truly a great President undone by his own insecurity and ego, Trump is nothing of the kind and will be brought down by his massive ego and blinding arrogance because he does not believe it possible.
There are marvellous supporting performances from the great Sarah Paulson and Carrie Coon, Paulson in particular, continuing to evolve into the greatest character actress of her generation.
Spielberg continues to amaze with his sublime artistry, evolving it seems with each new picture. I was not sure he would ever make a more political film than his superb Lincoln (2012) yet he achieves that with this superb work. He had long wanted to work with Streep, beyond the voice work she did in A. I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), and Hanks too had waited for a chance, thinking time had passed him by. The three of them create movie magic here, a fiercely, intelligent film that explores a pivotal moment in American history yet reaches forward to the present to explore the dangers of banning the press or having anything short of a free press. It is without question the single most important film made in 2017 and along with Schindler’s List (1993) the most important of Spielberg’s career.
The speed with which it came together is rather legendary. Spielberg read the script in February, cast it in March, began shooting in May, wrapping in July. The film went into post production within weeks of the last shot and at the end of November was screening for critics and studio executives.
Sensing how important the work was, Spielberg pounced and made a stunning work for the ages. How could the Academy not see that? Or is that Spielberg is taken for granted? Yet again? When does he stop apologizing for being the greatest of film directors?
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.