Our critics roundtable discusses the Oscar chances of the Steven Spielberg movie that ought to have been a shoo-in.
Each year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences nominates between five and 10 movies to compete for the Oscars’ Best Picture trophy — its most prestigious award, and the one given out at the very end of the night. What “best picture” really means is a little fuzzy, but the most accurate way of characterizing it might be that it indicates how Hollywood wants to remember the past year in film.
The Best Picture winner, in other words, is the movie that represents the film industry in America, what it’s capable of, and how it sees itself at a specific point in time.
So when we look at the nominee slate for any given year, we’re essentially looking at a list of possibilities for the way Hollywood will ultimately characterize the previous 12 months in film. And one thing that’s definitely true about the nine Best Picture nominees from 2017 is that they exhibit a lot of variety.
There are genre films and art films, horror films and history films, romances and tragicomedies. And thinking about what the Academy voters — as well as audiences and critics — found enticing about them helps us better understand both Hollywood and what we were looking for at the movies more broadly this year.
In the runup to the Oscars, Vox’s culture staff decided to take a look at each of the nine Best Picture nominees in turn. What made this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?
Here, we talk about The Post, Steven Spielberg’s fast-paced, star-studded journalism movie about Ben Bradlee, Kay Graham, and the Pentagon Papers that’s garnered praise from critics and audiences but seems to have curiously lost steam going into awards season.
Alissa Wilkinson: The Post may be the most classically “Best Picture” nominee this year. It boasts a bevy of talented actors, the kind the Academy loves, led by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks (who previously hadn’t appeared in a movie together, ever). It’s about a historical event — the publication of the Pentagon Papers — that was in many ways a precursor to Watergate, something Hollywood loves to make movies about.
And it’s also about the importance of the free press and the First Amendment, which makes it seem like a clear “now more than ever in the age of Trump” choice. It’s the first major film that was entirely written, directed, and released during the Trump administration. Selecting The Post for Best Picture would send a clear message to Washington about government corruption, presidential overreach, and the First Amendment. I initially assumed it was the shoo-in for the prize.
Though The Post seems to have lost some steam with Oscars prognosticators, it’s gone over well with critics (it has an 83 percent rating on Metacritic) and audiences, who pushed it to a healthy showing at the box office. It netted two nominations total, including Best Picture. So by your estimation, is it just the obvious factors that attracted Academy voters to the film? Or is there something more appealing about it?
Why do you think critics and audiences alike responded so well to it? And is it enough of a “classic Best Picture” film that it could edge out its buzzier fellow nominees? If not, what does that say about the Academy?
Todd VanDerWerff: Given the Academy’s voting system, it would be incredibly surprising for The Post to somehow win Best Picture. And while I wouldn’t call it my favorite of the nominees, it falls into the vast middle ground of, “Not my pick, but I wouldn’t be too mad if it won.”
Indeed, it’s a little surprising The Post wasn’t more embraced by the Academy. It’s not Spielberg’s best film of the 2010s (that, to me, would be Lincoln), but it’s one of his best, and it weds its story and themes to surprisingly propulsive filmmaking that uses visual language to nicely set up the various social strata that Kay Graham ends up having to traverse in order to betray some of her closest friends and publish stories based on the Pentagon Papers. (Notice how Spielberg uses the simple idea of which characters Kay shares the frame with, and when, and where they’re positioned, to tell a lot of this story.)
The Post has been understood as a newspaper movie, because that’s its setting, but since its main character is the publisher, it more accurately ends up being a story of societal mores and codes, and the ways the privileged and comfortable can make a more equitable society by giving up some of that privilege and comfort. (That said, Kay did send a son to Vietnam, so she has some degree of personal interest.)
The major narrative around The Post has been about why, with just two nominations total, it has sort of underperformed at the Oscars, when even lesser Spielberg movies like War Horse have managed six nominations. And this is a movie starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks! I think the answer is threefold.
The first is that the script, while solid, isn’t as strong as many other contenders’ scripts. The second is that Spielberg has ultimately set too high a bar for himself, one that’s essentially impossible to exceed. Even the rapturously reviewed box office hit Lincoln, which received 12 nominations, only won two Oscars. Doesn’t Spielberg have enough awards? you can practically hear the Academy ask.
And the final reason for The Post’s slight slide in esteem is that it was pitched almost entirely as a response to Donald Trump, and the Oscars ended up not being that into responses to Donald Trump. The most-nominated film, The Shape of Water, can only be read as Trump commentary if you squint and try to watch it in a mirror over your shoulder, while the second-most-nominated film, Dunkirk, is divorced from the present almost entirely. Hollywood didn’t want to make a statement about Trump this year; under the threat of several existential crises (the president being just one of them), it wanted to prove it still has reasons to exist.
In that regard, marketing The Post as the Movie of the Moment was probably a mistake, Oscar-wise (though it ended up being good for the movie’s box office, which is very healthy). I think it was also, ultimately, a mistake in terms of the movie’s reception. I saw The Post very early in the hype cycle (and I believe you were at the very first screening, period, Alissa), and it didn’t dawn on me that the story had modern resonances until about two-thirds of the way through. Before that, I was just enjoying the story, the performances, and the directorial choices. After that, that slight feeling of, “Oh, I’m doing my homework, aren’t I?” crept in.
Then again, that’s just my experience! I also liked the much-maligned ending! I’m wrong about everything! What did you think, Alex?
Alex Abad-Santos: The Post was an aggressively good movie, I think. The script was good. The performances were good. The directing, especially in the way it made scoops and the newspaper business seem sexy, was also very good!
But while I was watching the movie, I felt like I was watching a tarted-up version of Spotlight. Spotlight, of course, took home the 2015 Best Picture and was a cerebral and powerful look at the abuses of the Catholic Church in the US and the moral obligation that journalists have in telling the stories they report on. The Post felt like someone saw Spotlight, got a little bored, and decided they could make it sexier or more thrilling.
I think the Trump connection was really pronounced. The way the film talks about Nixon lashing out at the press immediately made me think of President Trump. Granted, I think the timing of this movie really affects how you absorb it, as you might see it differently if you watch it at a moment when Trump isn’t actively fighting with the press on Twitter, versus if you watch it at a moment when he is.
I do agree that the movie isn’t really a “newspaper movie” as it is a movie preoccupied with all the other themes swirling around within it. I saw it as a movie about sexism and Kay Graham’s influence in male-dominated spheres (especially in that last scene where she’s surrounded by women outside the courthouse), rather than a movie about producing a newspaper, the mystery of the Pentagon Papers, or the human toll of the Vietnam War.
The Post, for me, functioned better as a trailer for a Kay Graham biopic than it did a story about the Pentagon Papers. Is that bad? Am I a bad person? I just found Kay Graham really fascinating!
And I like trolly, silly things, so of course I enjoyed the ending.
Alissa: I completely agree with you, Alex, about The Post being strongest as a Kay Graham biopic. In fact, when I talked to the screenwriters, they said as much: The first draft was more about Graham, and the inspiration was Graham’s biography. Liz Hannah, who wrote the screenplay on spec, was expecting Hillary Clinton to win the 2016 election and saw the film as a chronicle of another woman’s story in a position of power.
But once Trump won and started his assault on the free press, the screenplay shifted forms to become what it is now. You can still see a lot from that original draft (especially in that scene you mention, Alex, in which Graham descends the courthouse steps in front of a crowd of women, who look on wonderingly), but the main focus is still on the journalism.
So maybe it’s worth thinking about it as a journalism movie, since Spotlight won so recently. Does it measure up to other journalism movies?
And do you think Spotlight’s win, being so recent, might also dissuade some voters who might otherwise see it as a “consensus” pick? Should it?
Todd: If forced to pick one or the other, I’d probably go with Spotlight. But I liked the way the two movies sort of inform each other.
In The Post, when Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) tries to track down the Pentagon Papers, it plays like a sly variation on Spotlight’s much more step-by-step portrayal of newspaper reporting. (To be fair to The Post, Bagdikian basically just tracked down and called a guy he knew. It’s not exactly an exciting narrative.)
Meanwhile, the stories about Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham sizing each other up are much more about the management and business side of newspapers, something Spotlight only touches on briefly.
The other movie The Post is in conversation with, perhaps inevitably, is All the President’s Men, for which its ending plays as an inadvertent prologue. Critics of the scene have suggested it plays like it’s setting up a sequel, or some sort of Washington Post cinematic universe. And I suppose it does, but I liked the way it suggests that one good choice begets another. Kay’s decision to move forward with stories based on the Pentagon Papers leads to a rebellion among other newspaper editors around the country, and that creates an environment where, when something like the Watergate break-in happens, the Post is positioned not just to cover it but to really sink its teeth in.
This is why I feel like the resonances with the press’s coverage of the Trump administration, no matter how much Spielberg and Hannah (along with Josh Singer, who co-wrote the final draft) intended them, are a bit false. The press has been pretty dedicated to reporting on the various malfeasances of the Trump administration. There are just so many of them that some fall through the cracks.
But it’s not as if every time there’s a major new break in the Russia investigation (whether thanks to Robert Mueller or a journalist), we don’t hear everything about it immediately. Unless The Post is intended for Fox News fans, I’m not sure the “don’t forget to keep doing your jobs!” pep talk for journalists in its third act is all that interesting.
Where I think the movie is perhaps more instructive to this moment in time is in its depiction of a woman who is deeply uncomfortable with breaking with her social and economic class to do what she knows to be the right thing. In an age when political opinion grows more and more orthodox depending on what side of the aisle you fall on, it’s tempting to simply toe the party line. But doing the opposite of that, theoretically, is the only way to truly change damaging administrations, and it’s what eventually leads down the long path to that ending. That’s the journey Kay embarks on, and it’s why her half of the movie so often feels so fascinating.
There’s another fascinating sub-theme, too, about becoming friends with the people you report on, which speaks to the tricky position journalists always find themselves in, where they inevitably become chummy with certain people they cover all of the time and can never quite figure out where the line is between “friendly with” and “a friend of.” And maybe the biggest journalistic theme of The Post is the way it depicts how various Post employees lean on these connections, exploit them, and ultimately have to blow them up to get the story.
To change directions a bit, this movie has a stunning ensemble cast, beyond just Meryl and Tom. Who were your favorites? I loved Odenkirk (especially when he’s trying to gather his change off the sidewalk) and felt like Sarah Paulson was utterly wasted as Bradlee’s wife.
Alex: Now that you mention the film’s wasteful use of Paulson — which I agree with! — in addition to the Kay Graham biopic, I would like to see a movie with Hanks and Paulson reprising their roles as Ben and Tony Bradlee, Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and an actor to play JFK. Just like with Kay, I wanted to know more about the relationship between the Bradlees and the first family than I did about the actual newspaper story in The Post.
Perhaps that’s even more indicative that this movie was so much better at making the stories and personas orbiting the Pentagon Papers more fascinating than the actual story of the Pentagon Papers?
It’s interesting that you say there’s an ensemble cast, because after seeing the film, I don’t remember anyone beyond Hanks, Streep, and Odenkirk. Maybe that’s because so many of those other ensemble actors (Alison Brie!) didn’t really have that much to do. From the film’s big three, Streep and Odenkirk stood out to me. Odenkirk’s performance — even when he’s picking up change — really hammered home the urgency of the story and the magnitude of just how big the Pentagon Papers story was.
Wait, never mind, I stand corrected. I do remember another character: the snooty legal counsel Roger Clark, played by Jesse Plemons. He was quite amazing at being the thorn in the Post’s editorial team’s side.
Alissa, would you like to see a movie about the Bradlees and Kennedys? Can it take place on boats, beaches, and the Hamptons? Can we make this happen?
Alissa: Um, I would 100 percent pay money to see that movie. Movie studios, are you listening?
Okay. So, given everything we’ve said about The Post, let’s answer this question: In five or 10 years, what idea, image, or scene from the film will stick with you? What will you think of when someone mentions this movie?
Alex Abad-Santos: The part when Bradlee shows up and Kay Graham excuses herself and locks the door behind them. It’s magic. I guess also Odenkirk counting change.
Todd: Easy. That long hold on Streep’s face as the events of the entire movie up until that point play over it, and the way she chews on her lip, then says, “Let’s do it,” over and over like she’s trying to convince herself she made the decision she just did. Just some great acting, from an actor who somehow keeps finding new notes to play after a long, illustrious career.
Alissa: I will never forget the scene in the boardroom, when Kay, surrounded by her board, tries to answer a question posed by Bradley Whitford’s character Arthur Parsons, only to discover nobody actually hears her. All the men start talking at once, trying to answer the questions she’s just answered. Finally, her friend, advisor, and board member Fritz Beebe (played by Tracy Letts) repeats Kay’s answer, and now everyone accepts it.
It’s a simple scene, and it’s pretty easy to miss what’s happening, but it’s a perfect encapsulation of Kay’s story, and of what many other women (myself included) have experienced in professional environments. And that’s part of what makes it such a joy to see her come into her own over the course of The Post.