I just watched The Post, and as usual with a Steven Spielberg film, I was thoroughly enjoying it, hoping, “Maybe he’s avoided it this time!” And then WHAM! There it is: The schmaltzy, on-the-nose scenes and/or musical selections that undo the magic he has so skillfully woven. And so again, I must wonder, Why?
All creators have worst instincts: tendencies to overdramatize, to underdramatize, to love terrible actresses only because they’re icy blondes. If they’re wise, they find a collaborator or editor to curb their worst impulses. If they’re not, they double down, find others who encourage or exaggerate those impulses. Spielberg clearly thinks his work needs no counter-voice (like his similar editing-averse peer, Martin Scorsese), and as a result, we get scenes in The Post like Meryl Streep walking down the stairs with young women gazing at her in admiration, and a Supreme Court judgment read aloud dramatically. And then Spielberg gets folks like me, a lowly blog reviewer in a $7 matinee, grumbling to herself, “Come on, Steven. This is not Lifetime. Cut it out.” Which is not to say that I disliked The Post. That’s the problem. I love Spielberg’s work. I just wish he’d stop ruining it.
Here’s what I wish Spielberg would watch for inspiration:
The “Win One for the Gipper” Speech from Knute Rockne All American
Rockne’s invocation of a previous player’s (George Gipp’s) dying wish to rev up his team would seem, on the surface, hopelessly manipulative. Onscreen at least, it’s anything but. Because it’s a highly charged moment, I was expecting some annoying inspirational music (I’m looking at you, Steven. Amistad’s ruined-by-treacle potential still haunts me.) Instead, the scene is quiet, with only background noise from the game. Pat O’Brien delivers the deathbed wish (that a losing Notre Dame team will go against the odds and pull out a win) as an obligation. He’s fulfilling a promise, nothing more. His voice is quiet; his face reserved, somber. As a result, the moment seems authentic. He’s delivered his sad charge, and it’s up to the players to make what they will of it, to win or not. The scene is, as a result of these decisions, deeply moving. And inspirational.
It’s an elementary writing practice: heightened moments require understatement. Why then must we viewers be subjected to John Williams overplaying the score in every dramatic Spielberg scene? (I don’t doubt Williams’s talent, but he too likes melodrama, doubling the bad impulse.*) Why show us a row of young women fawning over Graham instead of a single smile of a single person? I don’t get it. Nor should Steven.
Meet John Doe & Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Critics often reference Spielberg’s emulations of/similarities to Frank Capra. I see what they mean. There’s an optimism to Capra’s work, a hope in government and humanity, that is echoed in Spielberg’s films. And in the Capra movie I dislike most, You Can’t Take It With You, I see the same lack of subtlety and complexity Spielberg is sometimes prone to. But there’s a darkness and cynicism to Capra’s work that enriches and tempers his idealism, which is beautifully rendered in Meet John Doe and even in It’s a Wonderful Life. In Capra’s best work, the hero/heroine is compromised.
Take the newspaper story, Meet John Doe. Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) fabricates a story about a disillusioned everyman, John Doe, and then leads the campaign to lionize a man who agrees to play the part (Gary Cooper). She plies the man to give speeches repeating her father’s wholesome maxims about humanity. Her idealism–and desire to influence her society with it–blind her to how little control she’ll have over the outcome of this experiment, and the life she’s risking with her carelessness. Note that Joe, the innocent here, is NOT the hero. Why? Because he’s not as interesting to watch or as human a character as Ann.
Consider Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) may be the focus of the film, but Saunders (Jean Arthur); the wised up, cynical DC staffer; is our lens on the story, a woman who is complicit in a culture that destroys naive idealists like Jefferson.
Spotlight understood this necessity for compromised heroes. It derived its energy from the guilt The Boston Globe reporters felt about the coverup of priests’ sexual crimes. Obviously, the paper was not responsible for the child abuse, but they felt they fell short in their watchdog duties by not connecting the dots/seeing the extent of the issue earlier. Without this guilt, the movie would just be bad priests versus noble reporters, the kind of simplistic storytelling we expect out of Superman, not Oscar winners.
Unfortunately, The Post includes no such complexity. While we see that Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) worries about losing her paper and betraying a friend should she publish the Pentagon Papers, we don’t care about her kids/her family’s legacy/the other stories that might never get told without her paper if it folds. Nixon and his White House are portrayed in comically bad terms, which obviously resonates with those of us who feel the White House is in similar peril now. But we’re talking film making. And while in life there are clear right-versus-wrong conflicts, they don’t make for good cinema. If we at least got what it cost her just to carry on with that paper in the face of her husband’s loss, we’d understand more of Graham’s potential sacrifice. But Spielberg relies on Meryl Streep to deliver too much of this import, and a few throwaway lines don’t cut it.
Perhaps there IS no way to tell this specific story without it appearing so black and white, or at least it seems so in 2018. But I think the key was to let us see more of Graham’s history or even guilt–even if that guilt was considering NOT publishing, however briefly. By acting as if all of her concerns weigh on her equally (the revenue of the publication, her friendship with McNamara, her family’s legacy, soldiers in Vietnam dying), Spielberg may play up the drama of the decision, but he cheapens her thought process, doesn’t allow us to see the struggle against self-interest and rationalization. We therefore see her as more of cypher, and her decision as waffling and random.
That said, it’s a tribute to Spielberg that he still makes the film–and her–so fun to watch. But with a little more Capra viewing, maybe he’d make his heroes and heroines just a little less glowing, just a little more like the rest of us: rusty people, with great potential for more.
The Ending of Casablanca
Typically, Spielberg has a beautiful ending about a half hour before the actual conclusion of his movies, and instead of stopping there, he just keeps going. The peak excitement in The Post is in the decision to print, not in the aftermath, so why does the film continue? A few lines on the screen would have worked better. (Although the VERY end of The Post is too on point, I do appreciate the humor.)
I wish Spielberg would rewatch Casablanca: The hero says his final words; the heroine expresses hers.
The heroine gets on the plane, it takes off, and the hero gets a funny final line. Done. Bows are unnecessary.
Why can’t Spielberg trust his viewers to get it, as director Michael Curtiz did? Why must Spielberg underline, add exclamation points? I don’t need extreme subtlety, but I don’t need words across the sky either.
The Post is still so good–fascinating, rousing, entertaining, a great history lesson, beautifully acted. I loved both Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in it. I wanted to dwell longer in this world, wanted more time with Ben Bradlee (Hanks) in particular. I loved the mechanics of the press, the feel of the newsroom. The film is a pleasure to watch, and so meaningful in its message. Yes, it’s good. But with Spielberg at the helm, with a harsher red pen, it could have been so much more.
The Color Purple
Before I conclude, there is one final film I’d like Spielberg to view, if I got my wish.
The Color Purple is perfect. No false notes. All complexity (even the bad guy has some heart, and redemption). No extra half hour of cheesiness. (And talk about #MeToo!) Please, Steven. Watch it. See what you got right when you directed it. Replicate.
*I should say that The Post is an unusually restrained film for Spielberg music-wise, for which I’m grateful.