I got a shiver of anticipation when I read the announcement on Monday that Steven Spielberg would direct “The Post,” a drama about The Washington Post’s role in exposing the Pentagon Papers, starring Tom Hanks as the fabled Post editor Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as publisher Katharine Graham. Set in 1971, the movie will center on the paper’s war with the White House over whether the Post had the right to publish the top-secret military documents — first leaked to The New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg — that charted the escalation and futility of the Vietnam War. I have no idea if Spielberg has been mulling this movie over for a while (the rights were bought by producer Amy Pascal last fall), but everything about the timing suggests that it’s no coincidence the announcement was made 45 days after the inauguration of Donald Trump. “The Post” is clearly a film that Spielberg wants to make because he sees it as a parable of today: a high-stakes political drama of secrecy, lies, and leaks, and the rights and responsibilities of a free press. The parallels could hardly by more incendiary.
That’s why it’s a fast-track movie. “The Post” is scheduled to begin shooting in May and to be released later on this year, even as Spielberg is in the midst of post-production on his dystopian climate-change sci-fi epic, “Ready Player One,” and has had to push back another project he’s already at work on, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” (starring Oscar Isaac and Mark Rylance). Spielberg has a pattern of turning into a master juggler when he takes on a drama of historical import. He completed “Jurassic Park” the same year — 1993 — that he shot, edited, and released “Schindler’s List,” and he repeated the pattern, in 2005, with “The War of the Worlds” and “Munich.” It’s fascinating to think that Spielberg makes his topical-urgency movies on such a breakneck schedule, because that’s probably part of what gives them their history-written-with-lightning quality.
At the same time, it’s worth noting that it took quite a while for Spielberg to make “Lincoln,” because he had trouble lining up the financing for it. That marked a sad — and, in its way, signature — shift in American cinema: Steven Spielberg wants to direct a movie about Abraham Lincoln…and no one will back it! When the film came out, it was, of course, a huge success (domestic gross: $182 million), and it deserved to be, but you couldn’t help but wonder what was going on in the minds of the financiers and executives who would no longer pony up $65 million for a movie like “Lincoln” but would think nothing of paying twice that for a blockbuster about a car chase on Mars.
Actually, we know what’s going on in their minds: They’re reading the marketplace. Which is, on a basic level, what they’re supposed to be doing. As long as you regard making movies as nothing more or less than a business, the decisions that go into them may not always be smart, but they tend to have an iron-clad logic, and it is this: Week after week, around the world, the popcorn beast must be served! Movies about subjects like the Pentagon Papers are now routinely thought of as “elite” end-of-the-year awards-bait stuff. That’s the economics of the market as it now exists, and those economics come from two places at once: from the bottom up (what the audience wants) and from the top down (the executives looking to serve that audience). Unless there’s a change in those priorities, movies will more or less go on as they are.
But that’s the reason I got that tingle. Spielberg, a unique figure in Hollywood, still has the power to make the films he wants to make, and the fact that he’s now teaming up with two of Hollywood’s greatest — and most famously liberal — actors, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, to tell the story of a 46-year-old event in American political and journalistic history isn’t, in itself, anything revolutionary. (The Pentagon Papers is part of the liberal catechism.)
What has changed is the context. A year ago, a movie like “The Post” — or “Spotlight,” or “Zero Dark Thirty,” or “Erin Brockovich” — would have been thought of in that category called “Movies That Matter.” Which is to say: Movies that the liberal media establishment likes, that take on crucial themes of truth and corruption, and that have a fairly specific audience. That’s the way it’s been for ages. My question is: Could that audience, for the first time in a long while, evolve and expand? Is it possible that we could return to a period when movies aren’t just slotted into a category called “Movies That Matter”? That we could return to an age when they actually do matter?
The legendary Hollywood renaissance of the 1970s happened because America, at the time, was mired in social upheaval, in the earthquakes brought about by the new youth culture and by the corruptions and scandals of Vietnam and Watergate; the desire to see all that reflected back at us as drama was a timely, organic phenomenon. The defining motion pictures of the age, from “Midnight Cowboy” to “M*A*S*H” to “The French Connection” to “Chinatown” to “The Last Detail” to “All the President’s Men,” weren’t things you went to see because they were “good for you.” They were films that made the darkness enthralling, because they let you go into the darkness and come out the other side. They were slices of reality that were also extraordinary pieces of entertainment, and the audience was hungry for them because there was a sense, all around you, that the stakes were so high.
That, I think, is what has begun to sink in over the last 50 days. Here’s something that those who support Donald Trump and those who despise him can probably agree upon: that we’ve arrived, in America, at a fork-in-the-road moment, when we’re going to decide (and by “we,” I mean the people) what kind of a society we really want — a society that helps to take care of its citizens, or one that lets its citizens fend for themselves. That, beneath the policy debates, is the question, and it has never hung in the balance at any point in the last half century as seismically as it does now. These issues are weighing on everyone. That’s why reading the news each day has taken on a different quality than it had before. It feels like the very soul of America is up for grabs. The last time it probably felt like this way was in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Here’s a hope that is also a prediction: The more that people feel how high the stakes are, the more they’ll want to see those stakes reflected in the movies they go to. Wishful thinking? Perhaps, but you can feel the early rumblings of the shift I’m talking about already, in the extraordinary audience response to Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” It’s a movie that Peele, a couple of years ago, said he thought couldn’t get made, and the reason why is obvious: The topics it takes on — the still-scandalous subject of miscegenation, and of what really goes on inside the emotional calculus of everyday black/white interactions — looked way too taboo. Yet the whole thing has now been flipped: It’s those very subjects that are selling the film! “Get Out” isn’t a liberal message movie; in more ways than not, it detonates liberal pieties. And it proves that the whole question of what “the audience” wants is not written in stone. The audience, in this case, turned out to want the most daring and incisive social horror movie in years.
If there’s a new wave of movies that matter, it won’t just mean freedom-fighting media/political dramas like “The Post.” It could — and should — mean movies that tap into the drama of the lives of those who helped to elect Donald Trump: the working-class Americans who feel stiffed and ignored and dispossessed. Movies like that can come into being as long as there’s an audience for them. (And why wouldn’t there be?) Of course, that audience energy, even if it’s proved to exist, needs to be met by an equal flow of energy from the top down. And that’s the challenge that now confronts liberal Hollywood. Will the executives who decide which movies get made be willing to engage a priority beyond the gold-plated box of franchise thinking? Will they be willing, more than they are now, to get back into the business of making movies that matter? It’s not an either-or, yes-or-no question. But here’s a factor that could help: If they really believe, deep down, that they want to make those movies, that’s probably half the battle right there.