It’s 2017, the year all of our hellscape nightmares came to life and gleefully fucked us over, so it’s not that surprising that it’s also the year when so many of cinema’s well-respected directors—names we’ve recognized for decades—continued to profoundly let us down.
I will forever resent Ridley Scott for responding to charges of whitewashing in his failed Moses epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings, with the outburst that he couldn’t cast “Mohammad so-and-so.” That’s a crappy, ignorant statement that doesn’t go away just because Scott protected his bottom line and earlier this year replaced Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer is his upcoming All the Money in the World. Then there’s Martin Scorsese, who in the trade publication The Hollywood Reporter lambasted Rotten Tomatoes (on which, full admission, some other Pajiba writers and I are approved critics) as “nothing to do with real film criticism” and “insulting,” ignoring the fact that the media landscape has changed and that those writing positions Scorsese seems to wish still existed just don’t with the way the journalism industry has shifted over the years. Instead of supporting new voices, Scorsese attacked and undermined them, failing to understand that most people who do this don’t “take pleasure in seeing films and filmmakers rejected” but actually love cinema, which is why we’re consuming and writing and analyzing. None of us is getting rich from this.
Harry Potter director David Yates (and, very disappointingly, author J. K. Rowling) have continued to defend Johnny Depp, even though recasting him in the Fantastic Beasts franchise would be astonishingly easy and a move of good faith for their audience. Quentin Tarantino admitted that he should have done more about Harvey Weinstein. Woody Allen is still Woody fucking Allen.
And amid all this resurfaces Steven Spielberg, one of the most commercially successful and celebrated directors of the old vanguard, who hasn’t said anything idiotic or done anything irredeemably frustrating yet, and who delivers this holiday season The Post, a movie that is very good but feels, as Pajiba’s Kristy Puchko noted in her review earlier this week, very safe. It is inspirational, and Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks are amazing, and it falls a little short, and for me that is encapsulated in the casting of Bob Odenkirk as the Armenian-American Washington Post journalist with the given name Ben-Hur Haig Bagdikian. Does something about that feel off to you? It should.
Whitewashing is everywhere; whitewashing happens every day; and it feels like a new wound every time, especially when it’s an actor who is beloved. And at this point in his career, that’s what Odenkirk is, thanks to the continued underground appeal of Mr. Show with David Cross (who also appears in The Post), his years of comedy work, and his transition into dramatic leading man with the critically adored Better Call Saul. The Breaking Bad stans keep tuning in and maintaining the success of the AMC series, and aside from Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman, Odenkirk is kind of everywhere, appearing in awards-season contenders like Nebraska and on other well-respected TV shows like FX’s Fargo.
It’s probably safe to say that Odenkirk has never been this popular before, and his supporting role in The Post is not only the biggest, most mainstream thing he’s ever done, but he’s also extremely good in it. (Spoilers ahead for The Post, if you don’t know the history already.) Odenkirk portrays Bob Bagdikian, a managing editor at the Post who used to work at the think tank the RAND Corporation and who realizes, once the New York Times starts writing about the Pentagon Papers, that a colleague he knew at RAND could have been the whistleblower. While Streep’s Katherine Graham and Hanks’s Ben Bradlee argue about the future of The Washington Post, Bob is the one pursuing his lead, switching between pay phones so he doesn’t get tracked (and, in a very funny scene, dropping his pen, notepad, and change in a moment of flustered satisfaction) and eventually getting his hands on the papers.
When he reconnects with Matthew Rhys’s Daniel Ellsberg, who spent years smuggling documents out of RAND and photocopying them to keep a record of the U.S. government’s decades of lies about the Vietnam War, Bob is weary and wary, exhausted by the pursuit, paranoid about the vindictiveness of the Nixon White House, and aware that publishing the papers could “theoretically” end in jail for him. But when Ellsberg presses him for a guarantee that the Post will publish, he agrees, and later defends his source from Post lawyers demanding to know who it was. Bagdikian is clearly the best journalist in the film: Hanks gets the inspirational speeches and gruff demeanor as Bradlee, and Streep gets her feminist moment as Graham finally embraces her role as leader of the company, but it’s Odenkirk whose sleuthing, people skills, and profound loyalty secure the Pentagon Papers and open up the possibility for the Post to publish in the first place. He’s ultimately a paragon of journalistic virtue, and Odenkirk is quite good at capturing the nuances of that character, and still, he shouldn’t have been cast.
What does The Post tell us about Bob Bagdikian, aside from his involvement in the Pentagon Papers? Not much, but he was fascinating in real life, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey as a child who immigrated to the United States, studied medicine and chemistry before switching to journalism, served in World War II, and who later went undercover as a murderer in a maximum-security prison to write about the devastating cruelty of life on the inside. Bagdikian was one hard dude, and presenting him just as some white guy, which is what Spielberg does by casting Odenkirk, flattens his experiences. Sure, in the 1900s a Boston judge decided that if Jewish people should count as white to the U.S. government, so should Armenians, but as the years have passed it has become more and more clear that those simplistic ways of lumping together various cultures and ethnicities aren’t valid anymore. Which is to say that Odenkirk, with his Irish and German ancestry, simply isn’t believable as someone whose name is Bagdikian. He’s just not.
A couple of different films specifically about the Armenian Genocide were released in 2017, and neither was particularly good. (Outside of the Kardashians, it seems like the only way Armenians appear in pop culture is through that tragic event, which the Turkish government still denies.) The Ottoman Lieutenant, with Game of Thrones actor Michiel Huisman, kind of obfuscates whether the genocide even happened, instead pursuing a romance storyline between an idealistic American nurse and a conflicted Ottoman lieutenant (of course). And The Promise, despite a respectable cast with Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac, flopped pretty hard, earning only about $10 million on a $90 million budget. In The Promise, Isaac (who is Guatemalan and Cuban), Le Bon (who is French Canadian), Punisher actress Shohreh Aghdashloo (who is Iranian), and Westworld actress Angela Sarafyan (who is actually Armenian!), all play Armenians, and it goes without saying that Sarafyan’s and Aghdashloo’s castings are the most correct of those four. You know who, like Isaac and Le Bon, also would have looked out of place playing an Armenian in that movie? BOB. ODENKIRK.
The Post is a fine film, one of Spielberg’s best in years that segues into All the President’s Men in a thrilling way, and it has received a variety of nominations and awards from regional critics’ groups, who in the past week have begun to announce their best films of the year. But with the casting of Odenkirk, Spielberg demonstrates a blind spot that seems of a type with Scott’s slight against Muslims, Scorsese’s rant against the Internet, and the other shortcomings of that directing class. Did you notice that they’re all older white men? Huh. I wonder if there’s anything to that.