There are things to like about this film, but most of them occur in the first half. The script is smart and economical, delivered by a cast with an exceedingly high percentage of “where have I seen him/her before?” types. And Meryl Streep again absolutely captivates as the insecure publisher of The Washington Post, negotiating her new role as a corporate leader in a male-dominated world, where her father and husband (prior publishers) are not there to protect or assist her.
The look is also spot on. Primarily set in 1971 Washington DC, it felt like a a tour of every Northwest Washington den and kitchen I inhabited and, necessarily, every living room and dining room I avoided.
But I should have been warned as to the coming danger when the first scene, which occurs in Vietnam, featured the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival, such a trope that whenever I hear John Fogerty, I assume the sound of helicopter blades will follow.
As minor as that hackneyed facet appears, it is a fissure that later becomes a chasm. After all of the fantastic work Streep does to subtly and movingly depict the stakes from a personal and political vantage point, and they are large (her family newspaper is betting its future in publishing top secret documents that indict four administrations), Spielberg just doesn’t trust you to get it. “This is big,”you can hear him thinking. “I’m afraid that the audience won’t understand that it was hard to be a woman in 1971, that Nixon was bad, and that a free press is really, really important.”
So, out comes the Louisville slugger, and the director proceeds to bashing all of the important points into the heads of the audience, rendering it senseless.
Two scenes with Streep and her fiery editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) are illustrative. In the first, when Hanks condescends to Streep by suggesting she is covering up for her good society friend Robert McNamara, she deftly parries his thrust with the observation that when he was close friends with President Kennedy, surely he must have “pulled some punches.” Later, however, when Hanks comes to Streep again to acknowledge his prior failures, we get a moist, awkward and unconvincing speech about how reporters can no longer be clubby with politicians going forward because, you know, Vietnam.
We had it, dummy.
Speaking of Vietnam, Spielberg’s rendition of it is so simplistic as to be offensive. In his mind, The Pentagon Papers catalogued a multi-administration conspiracy almost wholly bent on killing innocents and saving face. One can fault U.S. engagement in Vietnam until the cows come home, but when Spielberg distills it to such a childishly elemental basis, you can almost hear Ken Burns sighing, “I guess I didn’t need nine of those ten episodes.”
Spielberg‘s handling of the feminist theme is even more egregious. Everything Meryl Streep does in her performance makes superfluous the film’s later choices when dealing with the issue. Nonetheless, again, because Spielberg trusts no one, we are forced to endure a speech from Hanks‘s wife (Sarah Paulsen) that it sure has to be tough for Streep, because she is a woman; another woman approaches Streep at the Supreme Court, solely to thank her for her selfless sacrifice on behalf of her brother who is in, wait for it . . . Vietnam; and then, as Streep leaves the Supreme Court, in a scene that would have returned my breakfast had I had one, we see her walking down the steps of the building, cutting a line through throng of women, all of whom beam at their idol. DeMille’s parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments was more understated. This is not to mention the penultimate and final scenes, where a Post editor reads out the first line of the Supreme Court decision exonerating the paper in a manner that would only be appropriate for “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and then, a security guard calling in a break-in at a little place called the Watergate. Because, can you believe it? This Nixon went on to be even more troublesome. Nuts, right?
You may feel good after you leave this movie, but take heed. The feeling is akin to the immediate euphoria one receives from eating a whole carton of ice cream. Soon, you will feel sick and/or shame. It is a testament to all of the other good things about the movie that the final excesses did not render a zero star rating. But really, if you want to see a great movie about a newspaper, re-watch Spotlight or All the President’s Men.