Steven Spielberg's "The Post" Is Strained and Unimpressive Oscar-Bait [Review]

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Steven Spielberg has actually become a better and more mature filmmaker since his E.T heydays. Take for example, some of the craft and masterful storytelling he produced between 1998 and 2006 ("Saving Private Ryan," "Munich," "Minority Report," "AI: Artificial Intelligence," "Catch Me If You Can" and "War of the Worlds"), an incredibly impressive and varied résumé. This was some of the riskiest storytelling he'd ever given us."

His technique seemed to have changed around that time. It felt more refined and less obvious. These were also some of the darkest, most despairing films he ever made. In other words, given the 30+ years of experience he had behind the camera, he just became a better filmmaker and learned from his mistakes. The way he edited, shot, and let the scenes breathe was just masterful. He also used long shots more often, a sure sign of having more confidence in his craft. His style looked simple, yet it was incredibly complex and effective.

However, something changed in recent years.  his latest, "The Post," continues in the very recent tradition of talky, slow-burning Spielberg political dramas ("Lincoln," "Bridge of Spies") of old-fashioned Hollywood craftsmanship. Spielberg's clearly going through a Victor Fleming phase of sorts, one of his idols, or, dare I say it, a Stanley Kramer phase as well, another favorite of his. Meryl Streep, playing Washington Post owner Kathryn Graham, a woman who had to fight her entire life as a woman in what was a man's game, is impressive in a role that will surely give her another Oscar nomination, her 21st. 

Tom Hanks is editor Ben Bradlee, editor of WaPo. A story breaks, as The New York Times exposes "The Pentagon Papers," a massive Vietnam war cover-up of government secrets that spans more than three decades, and four American presidents. Bradlee and his crew try to play catch up with the Times. Then a story breaks, Nixon's White House is suing for publishing the unauthorized documents. Bradlee sees this as an open door for catchup and has his crew search for the papers. 

Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) is the man that finds them. Odenkirk is the supporting actor MVP as Spielberg's camera follows his every move to nab the elusive papers. Sporting a comb-over and scraggly buttoned shirt, the 55-year-old actor has never been given a juicier role in a movie, it's well-deserved as his scenes are among the highlights of this well-meaning but condescending affair.

Spielberg crew regulars are part of "The Post," Janusz Kaminski's photography, a Spielberg trademark, is used in rather subtle but dull ways here, in fact, this might be the least showy work of his career.  John Williams’ score, usually a reliable composer, is by-the-books atrocious. However, the cast and crew taken from a who's who of TV actors are aces:  Alison Brie (GLOW), Carrie Coon (Fargo, The Leftover), David Cross (Arrested Development), Odenkirk (Breaking Bad), Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story), Jesse Plemons (Fargo, Breaking Bad), Matthew Rhys (The Americans), Michael Stuhlbarg (Fargo), Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) and Zach Woods (Silicon Valley). 

The film is split into a back and forth between its two main characters. There's Streep's Graham and her struggles not just to make the company public, but the tensions that come with being a woman in power. Then there's Bradlee, a no-nonsense kind of guy scrambling to find the papers with his crew of blue-collar journalists. It all comes together in a finale, where last-minute decisions could make or break the Post's future.

"The Post" is a by-the-books drama that goes along just fine, has a few powerful scenes here and there - and its second half zips along with speedy, albeit forced tension, not wasting any time between scenes. Spielberg, deciding to put on pause "Ready Player One," started shooting the film this past June, knowing full well just how relevant and juicy "The Post" might be for the current zeitgeist. The glibness and lack of overall dimension the film sometimes displays might have something to do with the rushed-up creative process Spielberg had to go through.  It doesn't help that the film is also going to be compared to the much preferable "Spotlight," a film which felt more lived-in and wired-through than Spielberg's. 

This is an episode of dramatized experience that undertakes some soapy creative liberties to make a thin story as cinematic as humanly possible, where the gist of it goes down in, what, 15 hours? Meryl Streep has two Oscar-bait speeches towards the end, both of which feel contrived.  Also, like "Lincoln," "The Post" feels like a stripped down, borderline play at times, however, what benefited the former, the setting of hard-knocks spouting feverish political dialogue, doesn't benefit the latter, which needs a more kinetic, fast-paced procedural style to energize its rather dull frames.

The political atmosphere, resistance to powerful intimidating men and the obvious ties to Trump and press, favor it, but as a movie, it strains, despite a handful of spirited moments, most of which involve Bradlee and his team scrambling to publish the papers on-time and without the interference of government. To me, the film actually says exactly the wrong thing about the power of the press: it empowers the owners, whom, in all honesty, have agendas, biases & greedy tendencies.

There's a moment in the film's final few minutes, possibly my favorite scene,  when after winning the supreme court decision Graham descends the courthouse steps as young female protesters smile at her, in awe, amazement. It's a powerful moment, with no dialogue included just the image of triumph over adversity, in a film that desperately needed more.[C+]

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