Martin Scorsese says that each film usually has a single frame that in visual terms defines and encapsulates the film. Think of George Bailey, in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, clutching his wife and children beside the Christmas tree, gratefully looking up to heaven to congratulate the angel Clarence on getting his wings. Scorsese argued that these were not shots that the filmmakers mindfully planned as the definitive image, but rather the image that they and the audience discovered as the tell-tale sign.
Or think of the Norman Rockwell painting of the little African-American girl being led by the Federal Marshals past the hateful graffiti into the desegregated school. It is a work that nails a moment in history, and in doing so signifies both what happened and how it is to be seen. It also signifies, as time passes and new perspectives and new voices arise, what other ways the scene can be viewed.
All this brings us to a shot in Steven Spielberg’s newest film, The Post, a fictionalized retelling of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the top secret report leaked by Daniel Ellsberg revealing decades of lies concerning involvement in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, told to the American people by several administrations.
The shot is of Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), the owner of the Washington Post, walking down the steps of the Supreme Court Building. While the reporters throw questions to the owner of the New York Times, who were the first to published the Papers, Graham silently descends pass a group of young women who fawningly eye her, this icon of a woman in power. Add John Williams’ lush strings and voila! A tableau. A moment.
It’s classic Spielberg…committed, heartfelt, sincere, and obvious. Is obviousness a fault? If it is then much of Spielberg’s early career has to be reevaluated, for he built a career, as did his hero, Frank Capra, before him, on playing straight to the heart. The Post acts as a bridging film, combining the earnest qualities of his early films with the darker, more mature style and subject matter of his later years.
With nuanced and solid performances from his stars (Streep as Graham and Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee), as well as down the line excellence in the supporting cast, the film is engaging, well paced, and smart. This is Hollywood doing what it does best.
It is only in the last third, when Spielberg and his writers, Elizabeth Hannah and Josh Singer(Spotlight), start drawing the parallels to our current historical moment, that the heavier hand begins to be applied. Yet, if they’re going to go there, can they afford to be subtle? Is ours a moment of measurable subtly? After all, what’s at stake, the filmmakers seem to be arguing, is the 1st Amendment and Freedom of the Press. For in this film, the giants battling are not the left and right, the Democrats and the Republicans, but the Press and Power. And the gospel goes that a combative Press is the People, our right to know, our right to not be lied to and manipulated. (Cue the John Williams music, please)
Overall, The Post is a strong film, a muscular statement for our time, but will people who believe that the Press is phony and corrupt buy in, either to the premise, the facts, the drama, or at the box office? Will the story and the principles embedded in the historical narrative be overshadowed by the tribal beliefs of our moment? Do we agree with Supreme Court Justice Black when he wrote in the Pentagon Papers decision, “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”
The Post is betting that you will agree. It’s also betting that the everyman appeal of Tom Hanks will make the pill easier to swallow. It’s also hoping that Spielberg is back in his Frank Capra/Norman Rockwell groove; once again being America’s most beloved entertainer.