TUESDAY, AUGUST 2, 2022
(Wise-Cracking) Kid With the Stand: In fairness, there's no such thing as a perfect way to tell an important story.
That said, there are ways of telling important stories which don't seem to make much sense. Consider the intern who rushes off to New York in the Oscar-nominated 2017 film, The Post.
The film was directed by our nation's best-known story teller—by the Homer of our own time. It purports to tell an important story. The background would be this:
The year is 1971. The New York Times has gained access to the so-called "Pentagon Papers," a gigantic, top-secret study which details the possibly unattractive history of American involvement in Indochina, leading up to and including the American war in Vietnam.
The study was supposed to be secret. The leading authority on the matter offers this overview:
The Pentagon Papers, officially titled Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force, is a United States Department of Defense history of the United States' political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Released by Daniel Ellsberg, who had worked on the study, they were first brought to the attention of the public on the front page of The New York Times in 1971. A 1996 article in The New York Times said that the Pentagon Papers had demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had "systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress."
The Pentagon Papers revealed that the U.S. had secretly enlarged the scope of its actions in the Vietnam War with coastal raids on North Vietnam and Marine Corps attacks—none of which were reported in the mainstream media.
The study consisted of 3,000 pages of historical analysis and 4,000 pages of original government documents in 47 volumes, and was classified as "Top Secret—Sensitive". ("Sensitive" is not an official security designation; it meant that access to the study should be controlled.)
Access to the study had been controlled; suddenly, it no longer was. When the Times was ordered by a federal court to cease publication of the Papers, the Washington Post decided to ignore the order and publish the material itself.
In theory, The Post tells the story of that decision by that newspaper. It's presented as a momentous decision—but as portrayed in the Oscar-nominated film, the decision-making is punctuated, again and again, by a highly peculiar form of silly cinematic fun, creating a type of representation which might be called Stumblebum Chic.
Consider one of the ways this cinematic silliness gets its Spielbergian start:
Early in the film, the Washington Post's Ben Bradlee has a solid hunch. He's convinced that the New York Times is about to break a big story about Vietnam.
He bases this theory upon the fact that Neil Sheehan, the paper's star Vietnam reporter, hasn't had a report in the Times for the previous three months.
Bradlee does what any top executive editor would do at such a point in time:
"Intern," Bradlee bellows, having opened the door to his office.
In response, a small, nervous fellow who looks like a teenager quickly appears for assignment. Bradlee instructs the intern to take the next train to New York City and learn what Sheehan is up to.
(He hands him $40 to pay for the ticket, then tells him to get a receipt.)
How in the world might this very young intern accomplish this seemingly impossible task? Within certain realms of story-telling, there's no need to wonder about such buzz-killing questions as that.
Nor does this nervous young intern fail to reward Bradlee's trust. When the plainly awestruck youngster arrives on the sidewalk in front of the New York Times Building, he asks a deliveryman what floor the newspaper is on.
He then swipes an undelivered package from the deliveryman's cart and heads into the building.
On the elevator, a group of five or six New York Times honchos are discussing the very topic the youngster was sent to explore! Peeking over the shoulder of one, the intern spots the layout of the front page of the next day's Times. He tells the honchos that he was in the building to deliver the package he swiped, then hurries back to Washington to report what he has learned.
The absurdity of this chain of events would seem to speak for itself. That said, we haven't yet mentioned the Spielbergian silliness which punctuates this piece of peak story-telling.
It's merely one instance of such silliness; the film is larded with same. But in this one instance, the Spielbergian silliness presents in the following way:
When the intern arrives in New York, we first see him as he stands across the street from the aforementioned Times Building. He looks up in wonder at the name of the building, then rushes across the street.
As he does, he comes extremely close to being hit by a speeding Yellow cab. The intern comes remarkably close to having his own story end right there.
From there, the intern proceeds to his masterful sleuthing concerning the New York Times' plans. But in this near-miss on the streets of New York, he becomes the second kid in this highly-regarded movie who has almost been run down by a cab, joining another youngster who has been told to run, not walk, as he moves copy from building to building for the Times itself.
At this point, we're only twenty minutes into the film. Already, two youngsters have come close to being planted by Yellow cabs, though each of the youngsters survives.
In fairness, this only begins to scratch the surface of the silliness suffusing this film. For some reason, it's merely the point where we decided to start our complaint this day.
In his excitement, a runner for the New York Times almost gets hit by a cab. Minutes later, an intern for the Washington Post has a similar narrow escape.
At this point in the film, we haven't yet encountered The (Wise-Cracking) Girl With the Lemonade Stand, or The Hapless General Assignment Reporter who keeps describing The Hippie Girl In the Tie-Dyed Skirt, even though no one is listening to a single word he says.
We haven't encountered The Top Reporter for The Post who forgets to be ready with pencil and paper as he seeks a key telephone number, then proceeds to spill his fistful of change all over the sidewalk as he tries to dial that number on an untraceable pay phone.
We haven't been asked to swallow the young woman at the Post who strides through the newsroom trailing something like twelve feet of teletype copy behind her. We haven't been asked to enjoy the madcap fun as a gang of Post employees spread piles of papers all over two rooms in the Bradlee home as they try to put the Pentagon Papers in some sort of order.
As they do, The Girl With the Lemonade Stand wander hither and yon. She accepts payment for her product and at one point offers a wisecracking remark at the expense of her elders.
If memory serves, we put the film on pause, wondering who the director could be, after watching the overtly shlubby general assignment reporter continue to talk in his hapless way when no one was listening. The repetitive silliness of these moments made us wonder who was in charge of the story-telling on the Hollywood end
It turned out that Steven Spielberg was, and Spielberg's a good decent person. For the record, it was his daughter, the actress Sasha Spielberg, who played the hippie girl in the tie-dyed skirt who the ineffectual general assignment reporter continued describing to no one.
A peculiar aesthetic seem to pervade this Oscar-nominated film. It's an aesthetic in which we're led to believe that this major moment in modern history was executed by a gang of semi-competent high-end bumblers who are, perhaps reassuringly, even more hapless than we are.
One subtext of this peculiar film might thereby be: "Stumblebums Save the Republic." No cinematic cliché gets left behind as we see the republic saved in this entertaining manner. This creates oodles of silly cinematic fun as our national story proceeds.
As we watched the film last weekend, we thought the story-telling was extremely odd—this "representation of reality" (see yesterday's report). We were struck by the way this important story is told—in a way routinely borne along by something resembling a flight from the merely serious.
An intern gets the drop on the Times; a wise-cracking kid wanders hither and yon. We haven't mentioned the major Post honcho—the same fellow who spilled his change all over the sidewalk—who flies home from Boston with the Papers, haplessly trying to fasten a seatbelt to the carton the Papers are in on the seat next to him on the plane.
We were struck by the succession of silly moments which keep invading this film. And yet, it made us think of the way our nation's stories are currently being told as "our democracy," such as it was, continues to slide toward the sea.
Tomorrow: Based on true events!