It’s difficult to classify what makes “political films” in cinema, is it supposed to make a political stance, or should it chronicle a political figure or event? All films are inherently political in that even apolitical films that serve as escapism from our political reality still have a political function. They either serve to maintain the status quo, or will push against it. Although this may be the case, there are still films with overtly political themes tackling issues such as legislation, journalism, accountability, and corruption. Regardless of whether they are fictitious or biographical, their purposes are generally to comment on current political and social issues. Milk (2008) was created around the time that public discussion was prevalent regarding same sex marriage, In the Loop (2009) was made to criticize the invasion of Iraq and how politicians justify war, and films like Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) pick apart global tension regarding nuclear weapons. The intersection between politics and power are complex and need to be ruthlessly examined by the public to keep its players accountable. In the 21st century, politicians have been performatively attempting to recreate an idea of politics and democracy that never existed in this country. Consequently, the previous template for making a political drama no longer works since the absurdity of political dramas of yesteryear has become our new normal. All the President’s Men (1976) worked when it was released and still rings true today whereas The Post (2017) does not resonate as strongly. All the President’s Men is a political thriller based on the reporting of the Watergate scandal, filmed soon after the reports were released, and The Post follows the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, taking place just before the Watergate scandal. These films deify free speech and journalism in a functioning democracy, but the artifice of the political system today—something that the creators of The Post are living in—makes their messages ring hollow. With the hindsight that films before it did not have, The Post still espouses ideas of hope without examining truth. They play into the idea that the system still works as intended when, today, anything but this is true.
All the President’s Men from a more constructive reading is a film that, instead of dramatizing the events of the Watergate scandal reporting, shines a spotlight on the true events. There is little exaggeration to the events in the film, no grand scores or cinematic flourishes to punctuate the story. Rather, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman’s performances as Woodward and Bernstein, grounded in a realist style, is all you need to tell this simple yet intricate story. All throughout the film they repetitively gather information, conduct interviews, vet information, and meet with editors, and it is a slog for the viewer, leaving you wondering just how long it will take to get the story out there. What makes this compelling though, is we are just catching a glimpse of these journalists working, reinforcing the film as an ode to the effort of journalists. It is a chore to sit through, but seeing their dedication and devotion to their craft—not even entertaining the idea of these characters’ having relationships outside of their work—makes them all the more endearing and sympathetic in their struggle for truth.
The alternative to this realist style is found in 2017’s The Post, a story centered on the Washington Post’s publishing of the Pentagon Papers right before the events of All the President’s Men. The two films share similar subject matter—the imperative of journalism in keeping the government accountable—but the ways in which politics have changed in the forty year gap between the two films does not do The Post any favors. In addition to the changing political climate, The Post relishes in the theatrics of cinema. All the President’s Men was released just a couple of years after the Watergate scandal broke, whereas The Post, covering the same era, is a little over 40 years removed. Consequently, The Post suffers from distinct costumes, makeup, and editing choices; and with Spielberg at the helm, there are plenty of fanciful cinematic choices at play for a subject matter that does not require it. Technical aspects aside, The Post has the hindsight of how the journalism at the heart of All the President’s Men was not enough to stop government corruption, but still purports platitudes about justice naturally coming from truth. Positioned against the Trump presidency and the era of “fake news,” The Post tries to bring the conversation back to the idea that truth cannot be changed and that honest reporting can lead the way to change. The film even ends with the idea that democracy won with the freedom of the press being able to criticize the president and publish the Pentagon Papers; there is no critical interrogation into the lack of consequences. No one implicated in the papers served jail time, the government continued to meddle and prop up dictators in countries overseas, and figures like Henry Kissinger are still admired by contemporary politicians. The Post supports the idea of truth and government accountability in the form of the free press, but by not condemning this lack of accountability, they are lying by omission and ultimately supporting the system they claim to criticize.
Examining The Political World
It is easy to create a story where you look back knowing what happens and position yourself as the hero, but it is much harder to make staunch criticisms of something while still being appealing, cutting, and funny. This is part of why satirical takes on politics like in the TV show Veep (2012-2019) have done so well. Veep is a standout series in that it is unafraid to criticize the political world it has created in its show which has somehow become less fictitious than the real-world politics of today where the Pentagon is releasing UFO videos and the president tosses paper towels to Hurricane Maria victims. In the digital world of today, political niceties are no longer as relevant as propping yourself up to be bigger and better than your opponent, even if foundationally you support the same policies. Pleas of unity and bipartisanship fall on deaf ears when others grandstand, looking for their viral moments that can propel them to political stardom. Series creator Armando Iannucci discovered this early—as seen in his earlier works—and consequently, he did not cower from putting politicians’ vanity and callousness front and center, that everyone working in the field is “building their résumé and eyeing their next job.” All the President’s Men was a political drama retelling the events of an incident that had just happened a couple of years ago, and though Ford had pardoned Nixon and many officials were still in power, the wider public was less disillusioned. America would even vote out Ford in 1976, hopeful that Carter would usher in the change that they wanted, flushing out the corruption that was revealed in the Nixon and Ford administrations. The Post holds onto this optimism that honest reporting is needed to combat harmful rhetoric against democracy and the free press, believing the system still works as intended, but it fails to look realistically as to how the political system has not changed for the better. Veep on the other hand, takes a nihilistic view on politics but still holds a hope deep down that the bad faith actors in charge can get their comeuppance. Politics is embedded in every system, and after years of it not working as intended, political media needs to explore the way these interconnected systems continue. As of right now, works like The Post are not doing this. Rather, critical examinations are coming from comedic angles, and with Veep ending its run in 2019, the future of media tackling politics overtly is uncertain.