In Spielberg’s “The Post” Katherine Graham repeats the old aphorism that news is the first rough draft of history. If that’s the case then the artist’s narrative is a polished second draft of history.
Spielberg’s drafts of history seem to have slowly evolved. He seems to always ponder the history of the “Great Man.” In his masterworks, “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan” he meditates on the complicated and heavy legacy of heroism of a Great Man (or a Great Generation) in the worst possible situations. However, his “Amistad” was a stumble backward–an attempt to chronicle the Great Man among the morally blind–but scanning more like muddled reimagination of an Atticus Finch type, with little to no insight into the mind of the character. The angst-ridden “Munich” only obliquely had any insight. It desperately desired to pull the sins of the world onto the head of the Great Man, but he cannot expiate them.
In the past decade, Spielberg’s has made a trilogy of sorts, and it represents a shift in his approach to history. His Great Men have always been run through the ringer, but now they’re going deeper. His “Lincoln” waded into a morally murky exercise in attempting to excuse corruption among Great Men under the pressure of a moral imperative. “Bridge of Spies” ponders what happens when a Great Man starts to see the moral failings of his movement. Rudolf Abel is the noblest communist of them all, because he alone believes in the ideals he thought he was fighting for. Donovan too, wonders how long he can stand alone against the corruption of his people.
However, in “The Post” Spielberg deviates even more sharply from his past conception of great men. What if the Great Man himself is the corruption? In “The Post” the Great Man (and woman) are unmistakably guilty. They seek redemption for sins they pretended not to see. Ben Bradlee’s attempt to publish the Pentagon papers is much less an indictment of Nixon than a posthumous declaration of independence from his supposed “best friend” Jack Kennedy who he now sees manipulated him for his own ends. So too, Katherine Graham struggles to assert herself not only in her own company, but away from the deceptions of her close friend Bob McNamara, the man arguably most implicated by the corruption of the Pentagon Papers.
It’s not really that great a stretch to look at Spielberg’s histories of the Great Man, and see Spielberg himself.
Sure, sure Nixon is the supposed bogeyman, but in reality he’s not really there. Nixon is tied up in the sins of history as much as Bradlee and Graham. And in “The Post” our Great Ones are far more involved in the circles of power than the putative leader of the free world. They are the ones who turned a blind eye to three decades of Military-Industrial simply to remain friends with their drinking buddies. Bradlee and Graham are the ones who realize that they shirked their duty for the sake of power. “The Post” is a major change in Spielberg histories. The great man and woman are the problem. So how can they attempt to atone for their sins? In this narrative, they must risk everything they corrupted themselves to gain.
It’s not really that great a stretch to look at Spielberg’s histories of the Great Man, and see Spielberg himself. Spielberg seems to be asking, “What was I in collusion with? Did I really not understand or did I just not want to know?”
For this reason, the triumphalism of the movie’s final act rings a tad hollow for me.
Spielberg hasn’t answered his main concern yet. Perhaps he’s saving that for his next history.
You’ve seen them in the magazine store:
rack after rack of glossy magazines, appearing and disappearing every month with an unconscious rhythm. But what if one if these leaped off the rack and escaped into the historical fiction section? How would it blend in with the other books on the shelf?
The transformation is not too hard to imagine. First, it would fill itself with bright images demonstrating a perfect attention to detail, as if lifted from period TIME and LIFE, but with blacks and reds that are too true to color when compared with the flat matte of the originals. Then it would produce a well-sanded script containing characters with a perfect balance of virtues and hidden flaws; a balance so ideal that it might have been lifted from a nearby textbook on creating memorable characters. It would build s plot from the same manual, with an opening in Vietnam set to period rock music, side characters with eccentric period clothing and period cant found only in period movies, and a few small twists and turns that keep the audience from nodding off. Finally, a perfect rise of tension toward the end with a perfectly-timed climax and a conclusion that satisfies everyone while still pointing a ghostly finger inoffensively to the modern era.
Like most of these slightly heavy, thick paged magazines, although it may be too expensive to throw away or completely igno
re, you can’t really care much about it either.
“The Post” almost was able to disguise itself on the bookshelf, but it’s glossy perfection couldn’t quite cover up its origins. It is a brochure for something; perhaps an advertisement of the director’s skill of putting these magazines together. But like most of these slightly heavy, thick paged magazines, although it may be too expensive to throw away or completely ignore, you can’t really care much about it either. It ends up spread out on the coffee table, and when a new issue comes out, it’s piled into a stack in the back room or attic. Finally, after gathering enough dust, the next generation half-heartedly thumbs through it as a curiosity, or it gets dumped in preparation for moving house.
It is a paradox. A stylized exercise, so laboriously polished to represent real life without the mess, that it ends up with no recognizable life in it. So smooth that it fails to generate the friction needed to build up heat. It’s a pre-packaged classic that smells like plastic.