Steven Spielberg’s new film The Post slots neatly into the establishment it purports to monitor, in a routine that belies the processes of journalistic inquiry it supposedly commends. It’s loved by critics, who are, after all, journalists themselves, and who appreciate too readily an assured and accomplished approval of the system. The System in the story is the American presidency, in particular the administrations of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon; the System within which the story is presented is that of the very hub of Hollywood industry. Spielberg’s style is cultivated from the mechanised forms and procedures of the studio era of movie-making; his methods are faithful to the conventions of the industry; he himself, together with the stars of the film, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, represents the core of its establishment; the story itself points to the ostensibly great deed of the head individual of a commercial and political system of its own, who is part of nothing if not of the élite of privilege and power in American society.
Spielberg’s film centres on Katharine Graham’s (Streep) decision to publish reporting on the classified Pentagon Papers in the newspaper her family owned, The Washington Post. Hanks is the headstrong and hardy editor who organises the investigation and reporting, and pushes strongly to publish. Richard Nixon steps in as the villain; his actual recordings from the Oval Office are used on the soundtrack (an actor named Curzon Dobell provides Nixon’s silhouette), and manipulated to cast Nixon in his own archetypal role. The exaggerations and fictions of the film’s plot are obviously formulated to directly connect the story to a comment on the Trump administration and commonplaces about the press’s role in relation to it.
Spielberg’s affection for the devices, forms, and simplistic sentiments of classical Hollywood is visible in each frame and each sound across his half-century of work. The content of his recent overtly political films — which I count as Munich, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, and now The Post — also suggests a dewy-eyed memory of the climate and matters that held the foreground at the time he came of age. What works most efficiently in The Post is utterly impersonal — it’s the so-called “genius of the system,” a sophisticated cinematic language developed for directors making movies to order on the studio assembly line. What’s distinctive and personal about The Post is the most deficient and ineffectual — an easy and obvious political pose to strike, which decries corruption and despotism with the visual aid of 40 years’ hindsight, and the prevailing cultural approval of an aged and long-established former counter-culture. Nixon ended the Vietnam War, and now there’s no one left to oppose the opposition, nor to endorse the sexist views and practices that thrived on all sides.
Meryl Streep is a perfect fit for a Spielberg movie, which is very far from praise for The Post or for her performance. She similarly manifests a total devotion to craft and the absolute embodiment of mastered technique that wholly conceals the hirsute, roaring, unconscious, chthonic human creature within. They have both developed careers and constructed public personae that include stands of principle which may be admired in public spaces but founder in artistic execution. Their irony-free, complexity-free, surprise-free, doubt-free conceptions are reflected in uniform, calibrated images, in the lack of angles, inflections, shadows, and original creations that question, probe, investigate, search, discover, or critique. This artistic approach was unpalatably vulgar when applied to the Holocaust or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, banal and platitudinous when observing reverence for the heroism of the D-Day landings, and merely tiresome and stale when added to a common editorialising position on mainstream issues of the day.