One of Steven Spielberg’s leanest and most economical films in some time, The Post dramatises the bind faced by Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) four years after she became the president of The Washington Post in 1967 – namely, whether or not to publish the Pentagon Papers, a classified government report into the Vietnam War. Set several years before Woodward and Bernstein, the film simultaneously offers itself as a homage, a sequel and a prequel to All The President’s Men, and yet despite a few nods in the direction of that austere vision of Washington D.C., this is quite a big departure from Alan J. Pakula’s vision of the 1970s newsroom. In large part, that’s due to the challenges facing Graham as the first female leader of a major news organisation, and the way those challenges converge with the question of whether or not to publish the Papers. By the end of the film, the decision to include them in The Post has become more or less synonymous with Graham insisting upon her own agency as head of the company – a somewhat improbable combination, given that Graham herself is far from a social radical, at least to start off with, and actually moves in the same circle as many of the people who are mentioned or implicated in the papers, most notably Robert B. McNamara, played by Bruce Greenwood in an especially eerie rendition.
That sense of improbability gives The Post a more buoyant quality than we’ve seen from recent Spielberg, as Graham and the Papers turn into something of an odd couple that grow more attuned to each other as the screenplay proceeds. Given that this was one of the key pairings of screwball comedy – the emergent female professional and the more “masculine” demands of the newsroom, here personified by executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) – it’s perhaps not all that surprising, in theory, that The Post often plays as a kind of muted screwball comedy, even if the result feels quite startling after Spielberg’s more dour and dusky recent output. Unable to quite occupy the sightlines of the professional conversations playing out around her (at least not at first), Graham is perpetually relegated to the fringes of every exchange, where she has to rely on the oblique points of entry into masculine-dominated dialogue that were the respite of the most ingenious screwball heroines. The tone is set, early on, during a dinner conversation with Bradlee in which she continually and curiously seeks out ways to slip in and around his assumed control of the conversation, setting the stage for what amounts to a screwball voice qualified by a more contemporary scepticism about the power of liberal Hollywood to ensure gender equity in the workplace.
Strange as it sounds, then, and despite its more sombre subject matter, The Post really showcases Streep as a comic actress, especially the inimitable capacity for hesitation, ellipsis and prevarication that she brought to Postcards From The Edge and, more recently, Ricki and the Flash. As a result, Graham’s story – her inheritance of the Post, and her decision to turn it into a publically owned organisation – often feels fresher and more timely than the story of the Pentagon Papers themselves. The decision to go public, in particular, plays a big role in the film, partly because it’s a decision that Graham is making right when the Papers are brought to her attention, and partly because the Papers themselves beg all kinds of questions about what a newspaper and media organisation owes to its public. For all the supposed centrality of the Papers, they often feel like a mere mechanism for articulating what’s at stake in the Post going public, rather than vice versa – the film, after all, is called The Post and not The Papers – as well as the implications for Graham herself, who may have spearheaded going public, but is still driven by loyalties forged during the era of private ownership, even if many of those connections refuse to conceive of her in a public capacity either, preferring to treating her as a personal friend rather than a colleague or professional.
Like so many screwball heroines before her, then, Graham is faced with a world in which the distinction between private and public life, and the fluidity with which people can move between the two, is calibrated differently for women and men – a situation that often sets her up to seem too reserved in her professional life, but too susceptible to allowing her professional responsibilities to seep into her domestic life as well. Negotiating that impossible bind – always too public, or not public enough – is Graham’s journey over the course of the film, and it’s enhanced by a surprisingly buoyant style, and a relatively bright, if limited, palette. So dramatic a departure is this from Spielberg’s more recent work that – along with Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris – it seems to signal a broader movement away from the classicist style of so much American period drama of the last ten years, and the way in which it strove to converge colour and black and white cinematography as much as possible without quite committing to either. It’s probably in this gesture that Spielberg departs most dramatically from the austere spatiality of All The President’s Men, pairing a slightly anamorphic lens and roving, circumambient Steadicam to produce a remarkably restless, porous and fluid approach to space for a film that is so staid in other respects. Some of the best scenes simply see the camera circling around Graham and her many male interlocuturs as she dodges and weaves in order to try and evade their characterisation of her – a circular motion that works beautifully to capture the centrifugal forces trying to subsume her professional self back into her domestic life, but also the centripetal forces trying to expel even the most residual professional accoutrements from her home life too.
To that end, Spielberg tacitly embeds a plethora of gender-segregated spaces and situations amidst the supposedly demotic vision of the 1970s that has become so beloved in recent American period drama. For all the stately and studied period fixtures, no space ever feels entirely closed off from the other spaces in the film, or even from the present, with the combination of small, cramped settings with Spielberg’s roving camera producing an almost documentary approach to space, in which the visceral ambience and apprehension of space overwhelms all of the historical texture that has been erected around it. Whenever Graham is on the verge of setting into a domestic scene, or even occupying a domestic space for too long, Bradlee inevitably bursts in with some news – “just a minute of your time” – with many of the most critical decisions in the film taking place in vestibular, transitional and ornamental spaces within Graham’s own house that exist partly to dissuade people stopping in them for very long, let alone rendering them continuous with decisions of national political import. Nowhere is that clearer than in Graham’s conversations with McNamara – conversations that he continually and deliberately frames as an awkward incursion into their private relationship, and orchestrates around just these types of transitional spaces, forcing her to offer even the most basic political discourse as an act of domestic discourtesy.
Part of the effect of that more muted screwball register is that it prevents The Post ever playing as a straightforward glorification of print media in the way that was typical of an older brand of newsroom drama. No doubt, the film is fetishistically fixated with the physicality of newspapers – newspapers being read, blown down the street, folded up in frustration – just as it’s nostalgic for a world strewn with newspapers – across offices, lobbies, living rooms – and for the capacity of newsprint typography to command gravitas. Yet that just makes the whole bind of the film – whether to publish the illegal documents – feel out of date in a contemporary era in which these kinds of decisions tend to be made by radical individuals operating outside of any institutional imperative, rather than by major news organisations. For all the analogies that Spielberg might implicitly draw between Graham and Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, or any other digital whistleblower, the very presence of these figures is in itself an indication that the world of print media, and print news, is now inadequate to the demands of a digital news economy.
In other words, the more Spielberg invokes the present – or the events of the film as a precedent to the present – the more distant the film feels, and the more its idea off printed news as “the first rough draft of history” itself seems irrevocably consigned to history. Subtending the screwball tone, is an elegy for print media itself as a site of screwball comedy, with the release of the Papers often seeming to inchoately mark the decline of print journalism as a dominant medium – or at least the beginning of the end – despite the immediate and somewhat unexpected gains for The Washington Post itself. By the time we arrive at Spielberg’s epilogue – a disturbance at the Watergate Hotel – it’s almost inconceivable that what we’re watching came before Woodward and Bernstein, so suffused is the film as a whole with the waning of print news so central to our own experience of the present. For all the screwball overtones, then, the final note of the film is one of redundancy and reflexive impotence – the sense of triumph is short-lived and fleeting – especially since Spielberg is clearly not on board with the kinds of radical individualism that would produce a Snowden or Manning thirty years later, or even a Woodward and Bernstein at the time. And in that bind lies the ambivalent atmosphere of The Post, an odd concatenation of nearly every major newsroom trope in American cinema that moves restlessly from one to the next in order to avoid facing how easily most of them have congealed by this point in time.