The Post (2017)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

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Is it okay to call Steven Spielberg underrated?  The Post was rushed into production and has mostly gone unnoticed with only the requisite attention because of the Oscar-bait quality of the film as well as the trifecta of Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.  It’s a period piece with occasionally heavy-handed messages about the freedom of the press (which is incredibly topical), made by a legendary director and with an incredible cast.  It’s the type of movie we’re used to being told is ‘important,’ and I think this turns a lot of people off.  It’s not the type of movie that comes up and surprises you, but rather a movie that tells you it matters, with that intention clouding the way you see the film.

So I think a lot of people don’t want to see The Post, at least those people of a certain generation.  It’s an incredibly transparent movie, one that is both larger than and outside of life, in some way.  It’s almost a fable at this point and might feel like it’s telling the same story as 1976’s All The President’s Men.

As the Oscars are appropriately awarding new movies and new voices, something like The Post will feel more outdated and of the old guard.  Because of that I think it’s easy to underrate The Post and Steven Spielberg himself.  This is an incredibly well-made movie.  It may not challenge you in the ways other films do, and it may be a little on the nose at times, but damn this is just a technically impressive movie with great acting and so many wonderfully cinematic ‘moments.’

First of all, you have Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, so Spielberg’s camera often frames them in a two shot, letting them run without cutting.  In these moments there’s no movie magic, just two of the best working actors playing off of each other.  The camera often operates in such a way to frame multiple characters at once so you can appreciate how they interact with each other, how they move and how the camera moves with them.

I think Spielberg may be underrated because his technical precision isn’t very flashy.  The Post has several long takes where the camera barely moves and others where it moves through multiple rooms as if in a maze.  Sometimes the camera shakes as it tries to keep up with a character in distress, and other times it zooms quietly in on a character in a particularly important moment.  The most striking such moment is when Meryl Streep as Kay Graham makes the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers.

To back up for a moment, this is a story about Kay Graham and the Washington Post.  After the death of her husband, Kay inherits the newspaper but only out of a sense of family obligation.  She is surrounded by men who doubt her, but she too doubts herself.  She is a character looking to find her own voice, and this personal story runs parallel to the Washington Post’s eventual publication of the Pentagon Papers even in the face of the wrath of the President of the United States.

The Post is a story about the first amendment, in other words.  We know that the Post eventually published the papers and came out unscathed, so the real drama is the personal one between Graham and all of the men around her.  If this doesn’t work for you, then the movie won’t work.  It’s a beautiful story that might turn viewers away with its heavy-handed message, but it’s a story that still needs to be told and which certainly made me care because of Streep’s performance.

You want her to succeed, and Spielberg as a director is so damn good at making you feel what he wants you to feel.  Maybe that’s what turns some people away from his movies, much less heralded now than back in his heyday.  A Spielberg movie is clear in its intentions.  It makes us feel fear, desire, frustration and wonder.  The shark in Jaws was frightening because of how mysterious and unseen it was.  Elliot’s emotional pleading for his alien buddy in E.T. made us feel for him.  There’s the looming threat of Jurassic Park, the wonder of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the playfulness of Catch Me If You Can and something like the energy of an Indiana Jones movie.  Spielberg was even involved in Poltergeist and directed a bleak film as violent as Munich.

The point is that Steven Spielberg’s movies don’t always do the same things, nor do they try to.  His later movies, mainly this one and Bridge of Spies, are concerned with a certain amount of respect.  He definitely feels like an older filmmaker who wants to make you admire the old guard, the people who came before.  Again, that intention might be looked down upon, but he just accomplishes his goal so well.

There is less discovery in a modern day Spielberg movie, but there’s also more of an obstacle for him to overcome because those intentions are so clear.  So I guess what I’m saying is, how can Spielberg make you fall for a trick even as he announces it beforehand?  He’s a damn magician.

I don’t really have the answer, and you might not have enjoyed the movie so the argument is perhaps invalid.  It’s all just to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this movie even as several factors worked against that enjoyment.

Maybe it’s just that I’m a sucker for this time period in American history as well as for old school journalism.  This film has the same appeal as All The President’s Men and Spotlight.  There are several sequences with macro shots of typewriters and printing presses which I could have watched for an entire hour.  There’s something aesthetically pleasing about old school printing presses.

The film is also loaded with appealing personalities and recognizable television actors.  I love finding pairs of actors who have worked together previously, kind of like looking for them is a game within a game, and The Post has a ton of these pairings.

You have Bob Odenkirk and David Cross from Mr. Show.  There’s Odenkirk and Jesse Plemons from Breaking Bad as well as from Fargo alongside Carrie Coon and Michael Stuhlbarg, though they are spread out over different seasons of the show.  You have Plemons and Zach Woods and Bradley Whitford from 2016’s Other People, and I’m sure there are other such combinations.  There’s also the guy from FX’s The Americans.  They’re all over.

The Post is amazing just for this collection of talent, but it’s expected considering the pull Spielberg has.  This movie is unlike so many others because of who’s involved but also because of the short turn around.  From what I’ve read, Spielberg decided to shoot this last February and had it ready for a December release.

No one else could gather this many big names and turn around a period piece with such efficiency.  Granted, a lot of people go into that production process, but it all starts with a director with a clear vision in mind.  You don’t get the impression that there was any discovery along the way as this film was made.  Spielberg knew how to shoot it, what he wanted the audience to feel and how to make them feel it.

The Post is one carefully-constructed mosaic.  It’s not revolutionary and surprising, but it’s a great way to study how to direct a movie.  I get the impression that Spielberg made this movie in his sleep, and it’s– he just knows what he’s doing, alright?  If you want to learn how to direct movies, watch his movies.  He quietly does all the right things, for the most part, and studying the way he blocks his actors and moves the camera will make your movies better.

Up Next: Vernon, Florida (1981), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Gates of Heaven (1978)

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