Widescreen: 'The Post' shows Spielberg's wizardry on a smaller scale

Posted1/31/2018 6:00 AM
  • Director Steven Spielberg chats with stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks on the set of "The Post."

    Director Steven Spielberg chats with stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks on the set of "The Post." Associated Press

There is a tiny moment in best-picture Oscar nominee "The Post" -- a blink-and-you'll-miss-it camera move -- that brought me to tears when I saw it last weekend.

I wasn't expecting to cry at Steven Spielberg's film about the dilemma faced by Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) in 1971 when the "Pentagon Papers" -- a damning, classified report on the Vietnam War commissioned by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) -- landed in their laps. The New York Times obtained part of the report, wrote about it, and got slapped with an injunction from Attorney General John N. Mitchell, but that didn't deter Bradlee.

It almost deterred Graham, the largely untested shepherd of the newspaper that had previously been controlled by her father, who then left it to her husband, who committed suicide in 1963. "The Post" is largely Graham's movie, a story about a woman cementing her own legacy in a man's world by standing up for what's right.

The tears came in a scene shortly after Graham decides to defy the White House and her own board of directors by publishing revelatory articles derived from the secret report. Spielberg's camera moves through The Washington Post newsroom and pans to a small picture of Graham's father on the wall, a picture Graham talked about earlier in the film. It lingers on the photograph for just a moment, then pans directly into Streep's face as she walks past the photo.

Graham's arc within this talky, exposition-heavy film culminates in this one elegant, wordless moment. Her father's little family paper would become a national juggernaut that stood up to a government that knew Vietnam was a lost cause -- but kept sending soldiers to die there.

Spielberg's career has been on the grandest of scales. He's hunted a shark, trotted the globe with Indiana Jones, flown across the face of the moon on a bicycle and resurrected the dinosaurs. But his tiny moments are often his most remarkable, like a robotic teddy bear sitting on the edge of his only friend's deathbed. Or a young boy imitating his father's mannerisms at the dinner table. Or Katharine Graham cementing her legacy and proving her worth to her father.

Spielberg's next film, an adaptation of Ernest Cline's pop-culture bonanza "Ready Player One," certainly doesn't look subtle with its video-game world of car crashes and epic battles. Let's hope the master has another hidden gem for us on March 20.

• Sean Stangland is a Daily Herald multiplatform editor who recommends the video "See With Your Ears: Spielberg and Sound Design," which can be found on YouTube. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanStanglandDH.

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