I had no sooner hit “send”on a piece (to be published tomorrow) in which I argued that Steven Spielberg’s Pentagon Papers movie The Post isn’t about Donald Trump and could have been made 10 or 40 years ago when I came across this interview in which Spielberg says the movie is an attack on Donald Trump and could only have been made in 2017. Well.
Hollywood is at this moment engaged in a kind of kabuki theater known as Awards Season. Neither Spielberg nor anyone else will be heard to say, “I think my movie is really great so please give it awards.” Instead, the trick is to go on a nonstop tour of V.I.P. screenings, panel discussions, parties and media interviews to try to convince Oscar voters (and those who vote on lesser awards, such as those bestowed by the New York Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association, of both of which I am a member) that the movie is Important or Relevant or Socially Engaged or, if nothing else, Timely. This awards season voters are being nudged to think of a monster love story as a social-justice saga, a horror movie as a “social thriller” about racism and a rom-com as a rebuke to Donald Trump’s proposed immigration restrictions.
The Post, which comes out December 22 and stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks as Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee, the publisher and editor of The Washington Post, takes place in 1971, when the paper tries to catch up to the New York Times’ series of scoops on the Pentagon Papers. To Spielberg’s credit, in the film there are no strained Trump references, but in interviews Spielberg is drawing a parallel between how Richard Nixon’s Justice Department attempted to block the Times (and, tangentially) the Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers via an injunction and Trump treats the media. Sure, President Trump heckles these same two news outfits (and many others). But it’s completely daft to imply that Trump has instituted some sort of scary crackdown on the press. As unseemly, immature, self-defeating and odd as it is for Trump to tweet insults at journalists, this isn’t remotely similar to getting injunctions from the Justice Department to stop publication of embarrassing stories. What Trump does to news organizations is unprecedented in its style, but extremely precedented in its substance. It’s called spin. Every president puts out the message that he’s being treated unfairly by the media. It isn’t like an attack on the First Amendment. Trump didn’t even strike CNN from the list of organizations invited to the White House Chrismas party; the news network huffily announced it would snub the president, not the other way around. There is no clause in the Constitution that says White House officials have to talk to reporters they don’t like, or invite them to press briefings, or even to host frequent press briefings. And yet the Trump administration keeps doing all of these things.
It’s pretty easy to retroactively re-brand a movie depending on whatever’s hot at the moment. The original script for The Post, written by Liz Hannah, was bought by Sony Pictures chief turned producer Amy Pascal in October of 2016, a moment when both women believed the script was about not Trump but…Hillary Clinton’s trailblazing victory, the one they expected to occur the following month. Katherine Graham was a role model who broke into an all-boys club (she was the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company), Hillary is a role model who broke into an all-boys club. Get it? No doubt if Clinton were president today, that is the spirit in which Spielberg would be plumping for an Oscar.
To make sure he’s covered on the other topic that obsesses Hollywood these days, Spielberg is also promoting The Post as an implicit rebuke to the cultural of male sexual abuse in Hollywood, posing for a Hollywood Reporter glamour shoot with four women who worked on the film and agreeing to a joint interview with this quartet: Hannah, Pascal, Streep and one of the film’s producers Kristie Macosko Kriege. This is a transparent attempt to curry favor with Oscar voters: a lot of people work on any given film. Spielberg could just as easily have posed with, and been interviewed with, such important figures from the movie as its other costar Tom Hanks, the other credited screenwriter Josh Singer, composer John Williams and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, all of them men. As it happens, The Post is a very good film. But what makes it good is not that it says, “Boo Trump; yay women.” If anything, Spielberg is doing it a disservice by making it sound more schematic than it is,