The Post : Steven Spielberg’s latest film about the partnership between The Washington Post’s Katherine ‘Kay’ Graham (Meryl Streep), the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and their race to expose a massive government cover-up in 1971 has all the patterns of director Steven Spielberg’s folksy signature trademarks: larger-than-life portrayals of everyday heroes, a relentless John Williams score, and an unapologetic embrace of rhetoric all effortlessly directed and shot. Detractors are already calling out Spielberg’s approach to The Post as too typical of his usual cinematic methods—showy, preachy and mawkish; all common criticisms we tend to associate with the filmmaker lately. They’ve missed the point. For this particular film, and perhaps because of the current socio-political climate, Spielberg’s decision to tell a story of a dark period in American History to highlight and parallel our reality the best way he knows how is not only bold and welcoming; it’s remarkably refreshing. Speilberg’s instincts to connect with a mass audience (which is often dismissed as ‘middlebrow’) is exactly what defines him as an artist, infusing The Post with that knowing energy we’ve loved about him ever since.
The First Draft of History: In the summer of 1971, the New York Times first broke the story of the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study performed by the Department of Defense that spanned years and several presidential administrations about the true nature of the U.S. political-military involvement in Vietnam. As the New York Times were immediately ordered to cease by a court injunction, The Washington Post, under the leadership of editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) seizes the opportunity to take the story sending them into an epic legal battle just as publisher Graham (Streep) takes the media company public—a deal that could easily be ruined by her possible incarceration and a Supreme Court battle. It doesn’t help that the administration of President Richard M. Nixon has turned vindictive towards journalists, to the point of denying press invites. Sound familiar? That doesn’t stop Bradlee and Graham, who’ve always enjoyed a warm, working relationship to pursue the truth whilst maintaining journalistic integrity. Bradlee even guides assistant editor Ben Bagdikian (an excellent Bob Odenkirk) in making sure he hones in on his source before going to print, provided that Bradlee can convince the board and Graham the need to go to print with this damning story in the first place.
Old School Way of Doing Things: An enjoyable and perhaps unsung aspect of The Post is the emphasis on the old-fashioned, good and bad, large and small. We’ve become so technologically savvy and fast-paced that The Post gives us a well-rounded glimpse of its period setting embracing all things analog—typewriters, payphones, and of course, actual printed newspapers. There’s one flawlessly performed and directed sequence that involves the use of landline telephones, and how a ‘conference call’ was conducted back then. Yet what’s more striking is seeing the gender inequality that women faced, even more so for women in power like Graham herself, who would enter boardrooms and meetings dominated by men, while passing by the female secretaries dutifully waiting on the other side. Streep, in yet another reliably solid performance, beautifully illustrates a woman finding her voice. She paints Graham as a reluctant pioneer unashamed of her femininity who never sacrifices it for the sake of power. Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee is unfortunately forever overshadowed by Jason Robard’s Oscar-winning portrayal of the famed journalist in 1976’s All The President’s Men. Hanks creates a Bradlee that’s more worn-out and weary as oppose to Robard’s steeliness and machismo. Yet only an actor of Hanks’ caliber could pull off the authenticity needed for the part, and to see him and Streep go head-to-head is a cinematic duet for the ages. Surrounded by a who’s who of character actors working at the top of their game also makes The Post a blissful spectacle of ensemble acting. Along with Odenkirk, some strong performances include Bruce Greenwood as former defense secretary Robert McNamara, actor and playwright Tracy Letts as Graham’s chairman Fritz Beebe, Bradley Whitford as board member Arthur Parsons, Carrie Coon as managing editorial Meg Greenfield and Sarah Paulson, as Bradlee’s then-wife Tony, who has a brief but moving moment in the film. That’s just the beginning. Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Michael Stuhlbarg (is he in every prestige film this year?) and Matthew Rhys all are top-notch as well.
Shamelessly Spielberg-ian: Spielberg and his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski keeps things kinetic, imbuing the film with a welcomed warmth instead of their usual muted blues and grays. The Post isn’t immune to Spielberg’s affinity for extra endings as well, imaginably making this film the unofficial prequel to All The President’s Men. On the surface, The Post can seem like typical awards bait by a reliable master storyteller we’ve come to respect but recently, relegate, like how we brush off aging rock-stars who still insist on having stadium concerts. It’s a pity because The Post offers more than what’s on the surface, and the fact that the film is undemanding doesn’t make it any less poignant. What can seem like overkill as Speilberg plays up the stakes to heights that risk into obviousness is, in fairness, actually backed up by facts. Yes, Bradlee’s daughter Marina did sell lemonade during those tense and critical hours. Yes, Bagdikian had a hard yet comical time transporting the actual papers. Yet the irony of it all is the truth is stranger than fiction. The Post is undoubtedly the Hollywood version of those events, but from the personal accounts of all those involved, dead or alive, be it through interviews or published memoirs, the details are far more strange and unbelievable. The screenplay by first-timer Liz Hannah and veteran screenwriter Josh Singer, who won an Oscar for Spotlight, isn’t going for subdued restraint and Spielberg thankfully and joyfully runs with it. It’s a rousing exploration of government accountability, journalistic freedom and gender equality writ large and purposeful as if to cinematically scream that those principles are more important now than they’ve ever been.
All of the things that we detract from Spielberg only infuse The Post with a palpable electricity. With two of Hollywood’s prominent actors in virtuoso performances, surrounded by a pitch-perfect ensemble and emphasized with amazing production values, The Post is without a doubt one of the year’s best. Yet what makes it a gratifying cinematic experience is Spielberg’s approach. With his hand firmly gripping the zeitgeist and directing The Post with his signature tendencies, the result is stellar. Subtlety be damned, and for all of Spielberg and company’s intentions with The Post, subtlety be damned, indeed.
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The Post is featured on Borrowing Tape's Best Films of 2017 list.