This isn’t a matter of whether or not “The Post” is Oscar bait — that much is obvious; rather, it’s about the degree to which it panders to Academy sensibilities and whether or not the film’s impact and relevance override that fact.
What is Oscar bait? Put succinctly, it’s a film engineered with the sole purpose of being competitive at the Academy Awards, one whose principle audience is not general moviegoers but rather the award show’s shadowy cabal of judges. The cynical connotation that the label bears is indicative of its film snob origins, but more severe of a crime than bashing films generally agreed to be good is the felonious deed of being an uninformed viewer.
A film is Oscar bait if it meets certain criteria: It is released late in the year; it sports big names whom the Academy is known to be favorable toward (like Meryl Streep); it concerns itself with real-world landmark history, especially that closely connected to the film industry; it is a period piece; the film’s protagonists are underdogs facing forces vastly surpassing their perceived strength, typically operating on a moral binary that places said protagonists in an exceedingly sympathetic circumstance; the film has protagonists who battle with disability or racism in a very heavy-handed manner.
Some of the more popular films in recent years considered to be Oscar bait include 2014’s Alan Turing biopic, “The Imitation Game,” 2011’s white savior drama “The Help” and 2010’s controversial pick for Best Picture, the King George VI biopic, “The King’s Speech.”
A final note: Those three movies are all good. In fact, many Oscar bait movies are good. The problem lies more in the obvious strategy to cater to the Academy’s easily discernible tastes than it does with the quality of a film.
Every year a film comes out that shrieks “Oscar bait” so aggressively, it would be more fitting if its poster depicted the head of its studio sailing across a lake in a cute little boat, fishing for those gold statuettes. Last year, it was “La La Land,” a film celebrating the history of Hollywood and jazz music while ignoring the impact of black musicians (a great film, nonetheless). This year, it’s “The Post,” the Steven Spielberg-directed film based on a screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (“Spotlight,” “The Fifth Estate”) starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, centered on the Washington Post’s 1971 expose of the Pentagon Papers.
The roster of talented cast and crew speaks for itself: If there were an Academy Award for Most Likely to Win Academy Awards, “The Post” would snatch the gold in a heartbeat. I can’t smell anything from my computer screen, but if I could, the trailer would emanate an oily odor, residue from the greasy assembly line it seems to have been produced in, and the comment section fulfills its role by taking jabs at the obviousness of the film’s impending success this February. But “The Post” is still a good movie. It’s a timely film on the importance of the freedom of the press in the face of authoritarian-like presidency, despite being less thrilling than what the “thriller” in “political thriller” would lead one to think.
But that’s OK, because what matters more is that the film is technically a period piece, stars Streep and Hanks, is scored by John Williams, is co-written by the man who won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for a similar film about journalists, is directed by the one and only Spielberg and is about good-natured people seeking justice against an unjust government — an inspiring tale of bravery if there ever was one.
While the cynicism in its design cripples the film’s appeal to some, the relevancy Singer and Hannah inject into it would be criminal to gloss over. Streep, ever the graceful performer, is placed in a tender situation: Risk the existence of the then-small scale Washington Post by publishing the same government secrets that got The New York Times into heavy legal trouble with the United States government, or succumb to media suppression. Richard Nixon is rendered a vile and silhouetted figure whose sole motive throughout the course of the film is to smear the name of the press.
It’s hard to see the film’s depiction of Tricky Dick and not immediately wince at the mental image of The Donald’s relentless attempts to discredit publications by labeling them “fake news.” The parallels are eerie, to frame things lightly, which underscores the heroics of people like Chelsea Manning and others fighting against the government’s shady practices.
In that regard, “The Post” has most other Oscar bait films beat. Surely it’s an invention with dollar signs in mind, but the heart is there: Spielberg, Streep, Williams — they’re all wonderful artists who understand the urgency of this film’s themes.