All the President’s meh: a post about The Post (Spielberg 2017)

post_xxlgEarly in The Post, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) finds herself in a boardroom full of men. Borrowing a trick from Jonathan Demme, Spielberg isolates and diminishes her. We have already seen her waking up in a bed covered in files and folders; we have seen her nervously rehearsing the key points she must make; we have seen her struggle with a massive document-stuffed briefcase containing all the papers for the meeting; we have seen her remain unreassured when Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) says that she will be the only person in the room who has read, let alone mastered, all the documentation, even though we believe him cos it is Tom Hanks saying it.

Kay is the owner of The Washington Post, a role she neither wants nor relishes. Her father passed the paper on to her husband, and she only inherited it when widowed. And as she lugs her briefcase into the boardroom and sits down at the table, sure enough, each of the dark-suited men surrounding her, confident in his privilege and at ease in this company, has maybe a single folder and a notepad already placed neatly by some minion before his seat. A man cracks wise about doing his homework.

When it is Kay’s turn to speak about the decision to sell stock in her paper for the first time, she loses her nerve, fumbles. When she does manage to give a precise number to the amount of journalists they will be able to employ if they sell shares at the lower price being considered, she is ignored. The men prefer to do their own arithmetic – loudly and less accurately.

This opening passage establishes the film’s attitude to the current conjuncture in US politics. Rushed into production less than a year ago, it was released in time for Oscar eligibility and with half an eye on this November’s mid-terms. Nixon clearly functions as a cipher for Trump (and less intentionally Weinstein). The decline of investigative journalism and of a (supposedly) free press in the Faux News era is appropriately bemoaned. But The Post really imagines itself as an extension of the 2017 Women’s March.[1]

While Kay gathers the strength to resist the men who run her businesses for her (in their own interest), and the gendered (and class) restraints on her behaviour, The Post introduces several other female characters.

While it is not entirely clear what Debbie Regan (Deirdre Lovejoy) does in the newsroom, Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon) gets to be one of the journalists working on the leaked Pentagon Papers. (But when she is relaying to her hushed colleagues the Supreme Court decision that will keep them in business and out of jail, some random bloke bursts out of his office shouting the news, drowning her out.)

Ben Bradlee’s long-suffering – and/or quietly independent – wife Tony (Sarah Paulson) gets one major scene, in which she powerfully rebukes her husband. She puts his self-described bravery in perspective by explaining just how much courage Kay needs every day to navigate the man’s world into which she has been thrust.

A Latina intern (Coral Peña) helps Kay find her way to the Supreme Court hearing. And even though she works for the Attorney General, she makes it clear that – and why – she wants Kay and The Post to win. A point underlined when the intern’s boss promptly and unreasonably berates her for doing her job.

After the victory, as the male NYT editors address the crowd about their court victory, Kay quietly leads her team away. Through rows of women – young, not all white, not all middle class – who have turned their backs on the yaddering men to form a kind of honour guard. As with Kay’s conversations with her daughter, Lally (Alison Brie), and the intern, it is supposed to signal the passing on of a feminist torch from one generation to another, and to women of other classes and colours.

But in all its clunkiness, that scene on the steps captures the problem with the film. The women’s story is kept to one side (and feminism remains the self-congratulatory province of exceptional middle class white women)

For all that Kay is key, The Post is not the film about women it pretends or aspires to be. This newspaper drama with occasional thriller-like and women’s-picture elements is mostly about men doing men things. Women-centred scenes feel pasted in from another movie.[2] Occasionally, female characters pop up to ventriloquise mansplanations of the significance of it all for women.[3]

And this is, of course, entirely in tune with the film’s conservatism, so typical of liberal Hollywood. American institutions, we are once more told, are basically sound and will always, eventually, do the right thing. The same goes for patriarchy.

Also, it would be much better if rich individuals ran the media because they can surely be trusted to act in the interests of us all.[4]

Notes
[1] And as a corrective to All the President’s Men (Pakula 1976), from which women are almost entirely absent. Kay is mentioned when Attorney General John S Mitchell (John Randolph) yells at Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), ‘You tell your publisher … she’s gonna get her tit caught in a big wringer if that’s published’. A female journalist, Kay Eddy (Lindsay Crouse), is briefly included in the Watergate investigation but only because she used to date a guy who worked for CREEP, and Bernstein bullies, cajoles, manipulates and tricks an unnamed CREEP bookkeeper (Jane Alexander) into revealing information. And that’s pretty much it.

[2] Speaking of which. There is a painfully inept moment in which Ben and Tony Bradlee look with great poignancy at an old photograph of the Tom Hanks and Sarah Paulson larking around on a sofa with John and Jackie Kennedy. It was all I could do not to shout “Run, Forrest, run!” But at least since The Post is by Spielberg rather than Zemeckis we are spared the digital insertion of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman into the background of the newspaper offices.

[3] This tendency has one reward: the dreadfully written ‘inspiring’ moment near the end when Kay mansplains journalism to Ben Bradlee.

[4] Sadly, the film broaches but has no idea what to think about the impact on news media of being shareholder-owned.

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Creator (Ivan Passer 1985), adapted from Jeremy Leven’s Creator (1980)

6a0mv5bmtqxmzm5ota0ml5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzq0mzqxmde-_v1_uy1200_cr7706301200_al_[the penultimate piece written for that book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

Leven’s novel is presented as the notebooks of Harry Wolper, written during 1969 to record his ongoing efforts to produce a clone of his wife, Lucy, who died in 1936 – efforts he deludes himself are altruistic, since he believes that the human race is about to become infertile. The notebooks include recollections of his courtship and marriage, the experiments that led to his Nobel Prize, his discoveries that enabled the development of the contraceptive pill, and his illicit career as an abortionist before the pill became available. During 1969, Harry’s son, Arnold, schemes to have him committed; his friend, Paul, has a nervous breakdown; and Maury Halpern gets closer and closer to identifying the town’s secret abortionist, who he is determined to see prosecuted. While searching for a woman to carry Lucy’s clone to term, Harry becomes involved with Meli, a nineteen-year-old self-declared nymphomaniac, who wants to marry him.

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This is the edition I had. The egg shape is a cut-out, with image within it actually a frontispiece. Classy. All the way down.

The notebooks also chart Harry’s relationship with Boris Lafkin, a fictional character in the novel he is writing, increasingly lengthy extracts of which appear in the notebooks. Boris demands control over his own narrative – hitherto, a series of cruelly comical misadventures – and his life radically improves as he meets, fall in love with and proposes to Barbara. But then she suffers an aneurysm and slips into a coma. Boris finally agrees to turn off her life-support. The autopsy reveals that, with a little more time, she would have recovered from the seemingly irreversible brain damage.

Harry, who suffers from Mazel’s Syndrome, dies within a month of marrying Meli. The final journal entry is by Boris, who wonders why he ever needed to invent Harry in the first place. Just as his story has taken over the journal, so now he becomes the author of Harry – at least until Harry tries to have the final word.

Leven’s novel is an awkward patchwork of tones, ranging from pseudoscientific patter to cod-philosophising, from the clumsily lascivious (a feature also of his second novel, Satan, His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr Kassler, JSPS (1982)) to the tediously prolonged sentimental (Leven’s screenplays include The Legend of Bagger Vance (Redford 2000), The Notebook (Cassavetes 2004) and a draft of The Time Traveler’s Wife (Schwentke 2009)). The novel’s metaleptic play between ontological levels, hardly groundbreaking in 1980, is a victim of the increasing familiarity of such postmodern fictional techniques (which Leven was even able to deploy in his romantic comedy screenplay, Alex & Emma (Reiner 2003)). Its bawdiness repeatedly runs aground on the characters’ unlikeability, and its attempts at profundity keep running into the problem of not actually having anything profound to say.

MSDCREA EC001Ivan Passer’s film, scripted by Leven, jettisons vast swathes of material. It retains Harry’s (Peter O’Toole) private cloning experiment and relationship with Meli (Mariel Hemingway), and relocates Boris’ (Vincent Spano) story to the primary diegesis, where he is a graduate student Harry poaches from a rival scientist, Sid Kullenbeck (David Ogden Stiers). By locating both narratives on the same ontic level, it loses any self-reflexive edge; 6a0creator1rather than competing with and commenting upon each other, they become nothing more than strands in a poorly focused (rather than multi-centred) story. Just as the complexly layered and multi-accented novel is transformed into a mildly comic sentimental drama, so Harry is recast as a genial eccentric, given to impish misbehaviour and flouting authority. O’Toole’s beautiful laziness lends the character an otherworldly air, as if he were a saint or a fool, but Hemingway is merely annoying as Meli – a character one is supposed, presumably, to find kooky and charming, if only to allay any distaste at the substantial age gap between her and her lover. Similarly, as Boris and Barbara Spano and Virginia Madsen (and their director) struggle with a script that seems incapable of them as anything more than characters in a poorly conceived novel. It is difficult to tell whether a tear-jerking ending in which Barbara died would have been any more disastrous than the one Leven actually opted for, in which Harry uses his authority to buy Boris sufficient time to talk her – successfully and without lasting health problems – out of a coma. No trace of the camp cruelty with which the novel’s adolescent ironies break Boris survives.

A new subplot involves Harry’s rivalry with Sid Kullenbeck, who schemes to get Harry relocated to Northfield, an unfunded research centre, where elderly scientists are put out to pasture, so that he can gain control of the funding Harry commands. Kullenbeck does not realise that the money follows the recipient, rather than staying with the institution, so when Harry’s masterful presentation to representatives of a research-funding organisation attracts even more money, everyone relocates with him to Northfield. It is unclear, however, what this adds to the film, other than some gentle humour at the expense of Stiers’s familiar pompous persona.

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Ivan Passer, whose Intimni osvetleni/Intimate Lightning (1965) remains an important film of the Czech New Wave, has never seemed comfortable making films in America, despite emigrating there in the late 1960s. Indeed, his cult hit Cutter’s Way (1981) mostly succeeds as a character-driven crime thriller because of the piquancy of its angular failures. While Passer’s direction of Creator is never less than competent, it is rarely more than that. His attempts to make the film freewheeling and quirky repeatedly stall in the face of a screenplay that is incapable of imagining people or human emotion.