The Post and Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. Two Watergate era films. Interesting timing. These two films cover different subjects but are related by Richard Nixon.
I’ll start with The Post. I thought this was a slam dunk: Streep, Hanks, Spielberg, the Pentagon Papers. Fake news claims and attacks on the media by Trump. Yet, after the ingredients baked, the results were a disappointment.
Why did the sum of the parts not add up a big winner?
Even with direct parallels between Nixon threatening freedom of the press and Trump doing the same, this should have generated a very interested audience. The seven other people in the theater did seem to enjoy it. I can’t speak for the people who didn’t show up.
Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and a stellar supporting cast all gave measured and effective performances. I say measured because it might have been easy to go over the top and turn their characters into caricature, but these are quality actors who brought texture and definition to their roles.
The screen story blended together several major stories, and several minor ones, into a film that suggested more than it delivered. Tackling so many stores was too ambitious because the viewer was not sure where any of them were going. Instead of building intrigue, I had a hard time staying interested – and I was interested. The film should have been a big mystery but it seemed to want to be too many things.
Director Steven Spielberg usually doesn’t miss. He’s the best filmmaker of his generation and has the pick of any scripts and projects. He directed the most important film of all time: Schindler’s List; and rarely is one of his films average, but this one is. I’m tempted to compare it to All the President’s Men about the Watergate break-in and cover-up. Alan Pakula directed this film and accomplished the near impossible, make a compelling film about something everyone already knew with no surprise ending, the surprise was how you keep viewers interested for two hours. Pakula pulled it off brilliantly. Spielberg was also working with a subject already known but he divided the audience’s interest between that story and how Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham navigated the Pentagon Papers to command her own newspaper. Both are incredible stories but Spielberg fails to maximize the power of either story.
The usually reliable composer John Williams turns in his worst film score. Worse than ineffective, it was schmaltzy and embarrassing. Williams is Spielberg’s go-to composer. His scores are legendary as is his list of awards. This won’t be one of his best.
Tom Hanks may have turned in a more accurate Ben Bradlee performance than Jason Robards (All the President’s Men) but Robards is more memorable in my mind. He was gruff, disciplined and wasn’t larger than life. Hanks will likely pick up awards for his performance and I normally love his films, and while his performance was enjoyable and effective, it wasn’t near his best. It felt like he was portraying Ben Bradlee instead of being him.
Meryl Streep does turn in one of her best performances. It is amazing to watch her work. There is magic in her method. The story of Katharine Graham deserved to be its own film.
Publication of the Pentagon Papers was a crucial event in our history. It pitted the White House against the New York Times, and by complicity, the Washington Post. This was an important First Amendment battle, one that carries on today. Sadly, this film failed to live up to its subject matter.
Mark Felt was Deep Throat, although we didn’t know if for more than 30 years. The film is more than just his leaking information to the Washington Post, it is about Felt’s battle to keep the FBI from being swallowed up in Nixon politics. Liam Neeson delivers one of his best performances and it is nice to see him in something other than an action film.
Felt is not a sympathetic character but you feel great empathy for his plight. The J. Edgar Hoover years built the FBI and tarnished it at the same time. Felt was a career agent and rose to be the number two man at the FBI. Felt was later indicted and found guilty of violating the constitutional rights related to searches without warrants. He was pardoned by Ronald Reagan. Felt was also a defender of the Hoover FBI years and many illegal activities reveal by the Church Committee. The Hoover FBI did distance itself from Nixon and after Hoover died, Felt resisted Nixon’s efforts to submit the FBI to White House control. While history will show that Felt crossed the line during his investigations, it will also show that he was a strong supporter of FBI agents and of the independence of the FBI from political influence. Where have we heard this lately?
I expected a small, and quickly disposable film, but instead found the story and performances intriguing; more so than I found in The Post. Neesom’s performance contained the fire and starch that Hanks and Streep brought to their roles. The film looks and sounds like the early 1970s and has an effective noir feel to it.
Deep Throat led Woodward and Bernstein along a journey that was central in toppling Nixon and saving our country. The publication of the Pentagon Papers not only opened the truth about Vietnam but it protected the First Amendment and freedom of the press. I would suggest young people crack open some books to learn about these two events that are more than 40 years old. Our country undergoes a crisis of government powers gone wild every 20-25 years. Sadly, history does not seem to teach us much and the corrosiveness of power must again be tamed.
While far from perfect, these two films serve to remind us that while our freedoms are carved in the bedrock of our country, there are those who want to apply their own layer of truth on top of our freedoms.