The coda of this historical drama has something of the ‘we know what comes next’ feel of the flash of playing card at the end of Batman Begins or the mention of Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes … after winning a thorny legal case involving the public’s right to know and paying a high political and personal cost, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), publisher of the Washington Post, tells editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) that she couldn’t live through something like that again and we cut to a security guard discovering a broken lock and glimpsing torchlight, then calling in a suspected burglary at the Democratic National Congress, headquartered in (dun-dun-dahhhh, as John Williams’ score doesn’t go) the Watergate Hotel.
Steven Spielberg’s movie – scripted by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer – has an obvious overlap with Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, including some specific tracking shots through meticulous recreations of the Post’s offices. But there’s a key difference. Pakula’s film, based on the Woodward and Bernstein account of their Watergate investigation, was made while Nixon was barely out of office and the wounds were all fresh – it thrumms with the kind of formless paranoia that distinguishes much 70s political cinema, and seethes with idealistic anger that remains shocking. Spielberg comes along with the perspective of forty-five years and there’s always a sense that things here – rotary phones, huge newspaper presses, manual typewriters, social mores whereby even powerful women leave the menfolk to talk politics after dinner and retreat to fuss over the style section – have had to be recreated rather than just caught on camera by a semi-documentary crew.
A prologue with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), future leaker of the Pentagon papers, getting disillusioned in Vietnam gets the mandatory Creedence Clearwater Revival track, and then we’re into the rather attenuated and complex unfolding of a long story, focusing perhaps oddly on Graham’s thorny position as the widow of the man her father thought should run the company in the build-up to a stock issue and the pressures on her not to okay the publication of stories the Post has got in on only after the heftier New York Times has been injuncted against continuing their own series … which is fair enough dramatically and gives Streep another chance to deliver a nuanced performance as a woman wavering at a crucial point in history, but diverts attention from the underlying story – the lies of successive US administrations about Vietnam – that was presumably the spark of contemporary relevance that made the project worth mounting in 2017. Graham and Bradlee have particular conscience-or-friendship issues, since Graham is close with former Defence Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) and Bradlee was a Kennedy in-group intimate, but it’s down to flashes of jittery integrity from supporting press people like Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) to suggest why people outside the Washington cocktail circuit might be fucking furious about the revelations – though Graham (mother of veterans) gives McNamara a hard time and a government clerk shows too-neat solidarity with her when she shows up at a courtroom (because her brother is still over there).
For obvious reasons, the worth of a free press has been hashed over in recent movies – Singer worked on Spotlight, which similarly looked to Pakula – and this tries hard not to let its obvious fondness for an era of guys with loose ties typing up stories in smoky rooms while spoilsport lawyers warn them of the consequences blur the fact that we’re supposed to remember their successors are in an even worse position and dealing with an even worse administration. Spielberg made this as a twofer with Ready Player One the way he once turned out Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park back-to-back … it’s one of his less showy movies, cast in depth with great character actors (Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Jesse Plemons, Carrie Coon, David Cross, Pat Healy, Diedre Lovejoy,Michael Stuhlbarg) and sure to appeal to beltway obsessives, but it’s also a chilly, technical achievement and more admirable than it is inspiring.