Best Political Films
The best political films struggle to find box office traction because, as one audience member in a Camden cinema told me, ‘I don’t come here to be taught stuff.’ He went on to explain that he had a hard job and movies were his way of checking his brain out, in which case I’d recommend ‘The Greatest Showman’, which consists of Hugh Jackman waving brightly coloured cloths at you for two hours, as one would distract a baby.
But I take his point. Political tales make for fine drama although there’s a tendency to turn them into satires like ‘Wag The Dog’, ‘Bulworth’, ‘War Machine’ or ‘The Death of Stalin’. They have more resonance when played straight. But how do you dramatise events that mostly unfold in the drab offices of middle-aged white men? You pick crisis points and go behind the scenes.
I’d list ‘Seven Days in May’, ‘Milk’, ‘The Ides of March’, ‘Petain’, ‘The Parallax View’, ‘Three Days of the Condor’, ‘The Manchurian Candidate’, ‘The Battle of Algiers’, ‘Frost/Nixon’, ‘Syriana’, ‘Z’, ‘Salvador’, ‘The Last King of Scotland’ and ‘Missing’ among the top contenders, although there’s a surprisingly wide range to choose from.
Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Post’ chooses to tell the story of the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg, which exposed the criminal deceit over Indochina/Vietnam conducted by successive presidents.
‘The Post’ contains both the best and worst of the director’s tics. On the downside, he’s avoided the political repercussions and narrow-focussed the story to one week in the life of the family-run Washington Post. The New York Times actually had more to lose and was more central to the story, but clearly Spielberg was drawn to a central moral dilemma faced by its publisher. Should the wealthy owner, played by Meryl Streep, risk the loss of her political allies, society friends and inherited company to run with a story that will make her eligible for a jail term? He goes for the personal, not the political, to the film’s detriment. You’d think this would be a history lesson with an astounding number of modern parallels, but he doesn’t go there.
Spielberg doesn’t quite trust the story’s power, and has an annoying habit of soft-peddling the hardcore data by introducing bits of business with cute children when he should be upping his game and piling on pressure. The film is too glossy; it drives down tension, although Streep’s performance is – of course – superb. Tom Hanks plays editor Ben Bradlee with an avuncular twinkle in his eye. Lately Hanks has become Spielberg’s cosy, kindly avatar; it’s not a very challenging combination.
The final shot of the film is a perfect recreation of the opening shot of ‘All The President’s Men’ – the discovery of the broken lock on the door in the Watergate office. So I decided to make this a double bill and watch Alan J Pakula’s film in full again, right after, as it is set in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam cover-up.
The Three Bens
The step-up in filmmaking is palpable. Suddenly you’re in the hands of masters; an electrifying script by William Golding, edgy, nervous performances by Redford and Hoffman, Ben Bradlee’s role now thankfully played by a steelier, darker Jason Robards. As Robards walks away across the newsroom after agreeing to run the story, he makes an underplayed gesture, slapping one hand in the other, that pretty much explains his passion for the press. Spielberg would have had a small cute child hug him.
Best of all is Alan J Pakula’s direction. He jumps into the unshowy, abrasive dialogue and long distance camera set-ups Europeam-style, and the tension is instinctive. This is the first modern-era film in which I registered mise en scene – in the sequence where Hoffman interviews a frightened bookkeeper. The shots are foregrounded by bars, bannisters, uprights, lampshades and diagonal shadows that extend and retreat, obscuring features. It is one of my all-time favourite film scenes.
But for me the shock was in seeing how we treated political subjects then (cynical, serious, demanding, complex) and now (simplified, flashy, emotional). Spielberg had a chance to devastate audiences by comparing the Pentagon Papers conspiracy – thirty years of systematic lying to the American public that caused thousands of needless deaths – with the present-day banana republic administration. I imagine he would argue that he had a different story to tell.
But when will someone tell the right story about the present? Perhaps we’re not ready for that yet. Give it a year.