In 2017’s political climate, where ‘reporting unflattering portrayals’ has been labeled ‘fake news’, this film was rushed for a timely release. As if the punishing deadline wasn’t proof enough of how seriously Steven took the theme, viewers will find only the subtlest references to Wizard of Oz in this piece. Similar to other sober endeavors like Lincoln, Schindler’s List and Munich, Spielberg restrains the urge to get too playful with his subject.
That said…AHA! Discovered a WOO image in this one that makes me want to go back and re-check all the others. It’s all about the stairs.
But let’s set it up before I reveal…
- “What makes the muskrat guard his musk?” Much is made in this film of Kay Graham, a woman from the post World War II era, when proper females kept to their assigned gender roles. Kay is thrust into the family business arena upon the death of her husband. She must strive for the courage to overcome her lack of confidence as she navigates amidst a storm of testosterone. To paraphrase the cowardly lion, “I’m going in there. Only one thing I want you to do: talk me out of it.” And the guys do try.
- Some crucial scenes, not to mention movie promos, feature Kay and Ben Bradlee on the steps of Supreme Court. It struck me suddenly that in Wizard of Oz, key moments of courage and steadfastness in the face of adversity are also set on staircases. Dorothy and her entourage must mount stairs to get in past the guard to see the wizard. The lion sings his famous song about courage on stairs. Toto runs for help down the witch’s stairs. Her friends rescue Dorothy after running up those same stairs. Dorothy bears her dire wait for the sands to run out on a small podium of stairs leading to the crystal ball. Even the mountain on which the witch’s castle is perched is a precipice of rocky steps.
- I have pointed out before Steven’s penchant for ascending and descending between levels of reality. Here, the trip up and down the Supreme Court steps represents an awakening — not only for Kay who realizes what she is capable of achieving, but for Ben, jolting him out of his elite social standing with the ‘governors’ back to that of a hard hitting journalist, a champion of the ‘governed’. One must often cross an intimidating barrier to reach one’s full potential.
- We experience a fateful wind blowing in the window in one of the very first scenes as Kay awakens. It actually ripples a curtain on the opposite wall to emphasize this main character is about to undergo a huge challenge. I’ve pointed out this connection to Dorothy’s bedroom window in the tornado too many times to count.
- When Daniel Ellsberg is shown sneaking the papers out of the Rand offices, note the sinister blue light bathing the set in monotone color. The overhead fluorescent bulb even flickers as in Joe vs. the Volcano. Black and white, sepia tones, and occasionally blue tones as in E.T. are Steven’s way of suggesting an air of hopelessness reminding us of the bleak landscape of Depression era Kansas.
- Bright morning sunshine streams in through velvet-dimmed restaurant windows, backlighting Ben Bradlee when Kay meets him for breakfast before the crisis begins. The dazzle of brilliant white light always signals danger ahead for the protagonist(s) in every Spielberg film.
- Steven’s favorite color combo of red and yellow makes frequent appearance again, livening up otherwise dull building exteriors and interiors. Note the prophetic Art Buchwald/Uncle Sam poster in Bradlee’s office: “Have I ever lied to you?” Kay wears a red and yellow silk dress in several scenes. Neil Sheehan sports a red and yellow tie. The camera lovingly dwells upon red and yellow cabs, street signs, drapes and carpets. Watch for it; you’ll find no end of examples. By now, I shouldn’t have to remind you…ruby slippers, yellow brick road.
- In the audio cue department, we do hear three bells ring when Kay declares they will publish the Pentagon papers’ content. Twice the typewriter pings and — to punctuate — we hear a third bell ding from the elevator. Steven likes to mark significant plot peaks with a chime of one kind or another à la Glinda.
- I was amused at a new take on the “Run, Toto, run!” concept. Usually Spielberg shamelessly employs the ‘Run’ line to amp up action and empathy for a beleaguered hero. But in this case, when Kay decides to ‘run’ the story, running involves taking offensive rather than defensive action. Fun twist on Steven’s incitement to excitement.
- I will admit I was shocked at the lack of a bicycle in a movie about newspapers, particularly in the scene when the Post’s big headline hits the streets. So shocked, in fact, I’m willing to bet the farm there was a newsboy cameo that landed on someone’s editing floor. OUCH, Amblin, who prevailed and why? Too cute? Too retro? Not D.C.-ish enough?
- No matter, Steven squeezed in plenty of cyclonic motion with the printing press machinery, shaking desks, rolling pencils, truck tires, helicopters.
- Which leads me to the final WOO parallel — the pageantry. Spielberg loves to showcase the bystanders, especially when they stand behind the protagonists as did the munchkins and the citizens of Emerald City. And there’s plenty of eye smarting support to be had in this film, (the protestors, the other newspapers), just as in other powerful pictures like Schindler’s List, The Terminal, Empire of the Sun, Sugarland Express to name a few.
Great film. Don’t miss it.