There is concern about the demise of the art of storytelling in film. Comparisons between, say, John Schlesinger’s version of Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) and Thomas Vinterberg’s remake of 2015 lend weight to this concern. In its lyrical evocation the ancient union between people and landscape - a quality evident in Thomas Hardy’s book – and in its subtle revelations of narrative emotion that seem so in keeping with the era, the 1967 version leaves the 2015 out in the cold. There are many other examples of poor storytelling in modern film of course; many involve excessive CGI.
And then there's the rise and rise of violence. Did Peckinpah, Scorsese and Tarantino et al turn violence into a cinematic vocabulary? Arguably so. In any case commoditized, hyper-kinetic action has replaced storytelling a bit too much for many people’s comfort. In this I’m in approximate agreement with Mark Kermode.
In Steven Spielberg, I think we still find a master storyteller at work (not that Peckinpah, Scorsese and Tarantino aren't brilliant story tellers). Is it a generation thing? Perhaps, although I doubt it. Many young film makers and screenwriters are brilliant story tellers.
THE POST (2017) evinces Spielberg’s narrative talents superbly. This isn't a concept that lends itself to modern, common appetites. A military analyst discovers written evidence of the American government’s acceptance of the futility of the Vietnam War. US soldiers sent there are therefore cannon fodder and no more. The war can’t be won. It wasn’t. No war is. The analyst makes the documents revealing this admission of futility available to the New York Times. Its rival, The Washington Post, also gets its hands on the documents. If they publish, they will go one-up on the Times, and blow the lid on government deceit and a betrayal of the people that goes back many years. So: publish and be damned (and possibly imprisoned), or play it safe? The only way is up.
A measured and well researched screenplay by (credited) Liz Hannah, Josh Singer takes us through this political and moral minefield fairly well. Where the script wavers and kills tension or gets mired in a lot of dialogue (which makes a pleasant change to manic over-editing and one line quips), Spielberg steps in with his wonderfully deft touch. Hand-held does not mean Steadicam to Mr Spielberg. It means hand held. Jerky is as jerky does. And this old trick still works. A jerky camera POV still brings a kinetic immediacy to what we see. But it’s more than this. It’s the scope of Spielberg’s cinematic imagination and the vastness of his experience that gets us through the slightly dreary – and, it felt, very dated – subject matter and shortfalls in the screenplay.
There is a scene in which screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s war on tension wins out, however, and its elephant in the lounge stuff. Just after the Meryl Streep character (Washington Post owner, Kay Graham) decides to publish the incendiary editorial, we spend too long in a bedroom with sleeping children and Kay’s adult daughter dealing at length with back story. Emotional touch points re Kay’s family life and husband are revealed and tearfully dwelt upon. It kills the momentum of the film stone dead. We then pick things up with images of the printing press rolling into action. But these scenes and images are now given too much work to do in terms of reigniting tension and momentum.
As a card carrying Meryl Streep admirer, I'm reluctant to say that this performance was far from her brilliant best. She seems to struggle to find and present the essence of Kay Graham, who is by turns an overdressed and over-styled embodiment of the sexism of the time, and dithering matriarch. The man’s world social milieu of the era is indeed unflinchingly portrayed: the women in the film make the men sandwiches and offer soft focus advice. It’s slightly annoying, but (I'm told) realistic.
Tom Hanks’ performance is solid and no more - as are the performances of the supporting cast.
An issue lies, oddly, with the hair and makeup. No matter how long they work and how late they stay up, no one is every the greasy nosed, bad-haired, coffee-breathed, cranky wraith that we all are after many hours without a vanity break. Hair and makeup artists move in just before cameras role. They do their job; but in The Post, this is the problem: no character in this film looks less than ready for a wedding day photographic session. Hairpieces were questionable, too. Streep’s was often obvious – and inevitably bouffant. At times I saw Margaret Thatcher instead of Kay Graham. Yikes.
In the end, however, Spielberg made me smile. He delivered a sensation of triumph as they published but weren’t damned – not quite. In so doing, the Washington Post shored up democracy (is that even possible in the Trump era?) with its defiance and courage; and an(other) obscene, self-serving government was revealed.
Ending on the Watergate break-in was the icing on an overall just barely satisfying cake. Of course other film directors could have pulled it off and held it together; but as someone born in the JAWS of a big fish long ago, I couldn’t help but tip my screenwriter’s and bum-on-seat hat to the pleasantly familiar genius of Steven Spielberg.