Spotlight, the Oscar-winning movie of two years ago, made me feel proud to be a journalist. The Post, which I finally saw over the weekend, reminded me how much fun the business is. Or at least was once upon a time. I’m pretty sure it still has its moments.
Sometimes casting is everything. A city room is a collection of characters, and the most efficient way to put that across in a movie is the way director Steven Spielberg chose here: bring together a bunch of your favorite character actors and let them have at it—the degree of permissible overacting set by Meryl Streep, who as Kay Graham turns in the kind of bravura performance that you never for a minute forget is all technique. (You watch her do a scene and want to hold up a board that says “10.”) Just about every role in the movie of any consequence is played by someone we know from somewhere else and are delighted to see again. Like Matthew Rhys from The Americans, and Bob Odenkirk and Jesse Plemons from Breaking Bad, and Tracy Letts from Homeland and Lady Bird, and his wife, Carrie Coon, from Fargo. And Michael Stuhlbarg, who’s in everything these days but I remember chiefly from Boardwalk Empire.
I don’t remember watching a movie where I was more certain that everyone in it was having a wonderful time.
Spotlight told the story of a gritty investigation into the deviant behavior of priests that was undertaken by the Boston Globe as the financial sun was beginning to set on American newspapers. We all know that publishing the Pentagon Papers did the Washington Post no harm whatsoever, and I walked out of the movie about that adventure with a big grin on my face. Spielberg wraps up the show with a wonderful joke. The first scene of All the President’s Men (1976) becomes the last scene of The Post—a guard discovering the 1972 break-in at the Watergate. The soundtrack swells with portentous chords that tell us the story we’ve just watched is but a prequel to another that’s even niftier—like a stirring Christopher Nolan curtain that makes it clear the Batman saga is far from done.
The Post, like All the President’s Men, and like Spotlight, is about reaching a specific end—the publishing of a series of epochal news stories. Finally an OK is given, presses rumble, and bundles of newspapers brimming with dreadnought news are tossed off trucks to vendors on street corners. That’s how it used to be. Every newly published story was an event. During Watergate, I worked Sunday nights at the Sun-Times, and it was exciting to watch the wires because that was the night when Time and Newsweek announced their new editions, each with its inevitable Watergate report sure to move the ball another few yards down the field.
Today, the big investigative story in the issue of the New York Times I retrieve from my porch and hold in my hand is something that was released online sometime yesterday and I heard discussed last night by Rachel Maddow—and probably by Chris Matthews, Chris Hayes, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Brian Williams too, not to mention their guest panelists. Nothing is ever actually published anymore; news oozes out into an unceasing slurry of reaction, analysis, and babble. There’s far too little news to fill a breathless evening of cable news punditry, but nevertheless it is filled. The president’s tweets help immeasurably.
The Post was exciting because everyone onscreen and in the audience embraced the premise that the Post had news to tell that would turn the world on its ear. Sometimes at home watching TV I’m not sure what news is any longer. I’m not sure it even exists. Sometimes I get so stuffed with hubbub that isn’t news that I want to throw up.