It wouldn’t be a vintage awards year without the presence of some familiar names. In the year when the Academy Awards celebrates its 90th anniversary, it’s only fitting that one of its Best Picture nominees is directed by arguably the biggest name in filmmaking, Steven Spielberg, and starring multiple Academy Award winners Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. That film is The Post, and it follows a tradition in cinema for taking on and re-telling the fascinating stories from the world of journalism. Following on from Spotlight’s success in 2015, and being set in the era of All The President’s Men (1976), it finds itself in illustrious cinematic company.
At the opening we are taken behind the scenes into the running of The Washington Post, at the time a provincial newspaper, lost in the shadow of big name competitors like the New York Times. It’s the early 1970s, America is in the midst of the ongoing Vietnam War and the newspaper industry is battling for the hot ticket revelations coming out of the combat zones. The Post finds itself losing out against the journalistic mantra of “if you’re not first, you’re last.” When an opportunity arises for the Washington Post to report a truly explosive story that goes all the way to the heart of the American government and the desk of President Richard Nixon, they face a moral and ethical dilemma. Publish the story on principles of freedom of speech and public interest and face the full wrath of government, or not publish it and continue to wither in smaller scale relative insignificance. It’s the story of The Post, and the making of a paper that a few years later went on to break the infamous Watergate scandal.
From the announcement of this project, there was awards hype built around The Post. It is comprised of an Academy Awards super team: Directed by Steven Spielberg (6x Best Director Nominations, 2x Winner); Music composed by John Williams (33x Best Original Score Nominations, 3x Winner + 1x Best Original Dramatic Score and 1x Adapted Score); and starring Meryl Streep (17x Best Actress Nominations, 2x Winner) and Tom Hanks (5x Best Actor Nominations, 2x Winner) – and that’s not to mention the scores of nominations and awards garnered from other ceremonies. The Post is built on a foundation of awards, and so its multiple Best Picture nominations from multiple sources, is probably not the least bit surprising. But can a film be nominated on mythos and names alone, and does The Post warrant such high acclaim?
At this point, it should be said that I think it’s a good film; a fascinating topic, strong performances and well assembled, so it’s more than worthy of being in the discussion. It is perhaps also the most traditional Best Picture nominee out of the 9 competing films, but for me it didn’t quite carry the impact that the hype and anticipation would perhaps have suggested. It is very well composed, as is understandably expected now from Spielberg (the Godfather of Cinema), and the lead performances are forceful and masterfully played out too, again as you’d expect from some of the modern masters in Hanks and Streep. However, the film as a whole, lacked the punch or the force expected of it. It lacked a certain je ne sais quoi required to really be held in the highest regard.
When considered against films of a similar nature, such as All The President’s Men or Spotlight, this film feels distinctly flat by comparison. There is a dramatic story here and it’s present throughout the film, but it’s not the primary focus of the film. Instead, the film focuses on the decision of whether to go to print or not and the ramifications of that decision.
There is an interesting story to be told in that subject, however, the effect is to create a film where journalists are sitting around waiting for a decision to be made, while their publisher, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), goes to formal meetings and spends a lot of time hesitating and ruminating on her decision. Subsequently, the film lacks tension and it lacks any meaningful dynamism, falling into lulls it struggles to escape.
The story of the investigation and the risks taken by the whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) to smuggle out and release documents of highly sensitive information to the press and the subsequent compiling of that into the explosive story it became, is where the real drama sits in this story. Despite the earnest and brilliant performances from Hanks and Streep alongside an very able supporting cast, the film just misses the boat on where the most fascinating story lies.
Much like one of its fellow contenders, The Darkest Hour, The Post feels like a film which is led by some sublime performances, but where the wider film feels more lacklustre. That isn’t to sat that The Post isn’t a very well made film, just that it isn’t as memorable or impactful as it perhaps could have been.
Nevertheless, it is a very timely release, not just in terms of Award Season, but as an impassioned plea/warning to the current powers that be in the White House. The underlying message is of the dangers of discrediting the media, and attempting to undermine and de-value it at every attempt, merely because it’s in disagreement with your own agenda. It’s perhaps this aspect which gives it the force it otherwise lacks as a film.
By taking a story which was about turning a spotlight on and targeting Richard Nixon and his dark and secretive political machinations, they are also holding up a mirror on history and fairly openly targeting the current incumbent of the Oval Office, Donald Trump. Times have changed, and some things have grown more sophisticated, but the dangers and risks are the same when attacking a free press and seeking to silence them in their investigations. Accountability is important, and a leader who hides from it or actively avoids it is to be viewed with more than a modicum of suspicion and will become a valid target for ever greater scrutiny.
The timeliness of this film and that principle message isn’t really lost on anyone, and it’s perhaps this aspect – more than the overall quality of the story – that has gained this film its plaudits. That and its Awards clad cast and crew. Ultimately, The Post is a film with a loud voice, and it will undoubtedly seek to proclaim its message prominently on Cinema’s most eminent awards night.
I think for its cultural relevance and resonance, that it can be considered an understandable inclusion for Best Film awards, however I can’t say that I loved the film, and I really wanted to. I was left somewhat disappointed that this film wasn’t quite what it could have been. Of the nine main contenders, I’d have to say that this would be towards the bottom. It’s undoubtedly a good film, but certainly nowhere near the Best Film.
For all the names and achievements attached to this project, the finished article left me feeling a little underwhelmed, and just watching a vehicle slightly hurried along to make an important point for the here and now. That’s an admirable ambition, and we should certainly look to history to learn from the mistakes, but I feel there are other films that have just done this so much better and managed the balance between social message and engaging film more successfully. The Post is engaging enough, but just falls short in the discussion for major awards, with the exception of John Williams’ score which – as an addendum to my wider thoughts – I felt to be a better piece of original composition work than The Last Jedi’s soundtrack for which he has been nominated.