By Dan Cava
December 20, 2017
In 1971, The New York Times published leaked portions of the Pentagon Papers, a damning government report on the Vietnam War that scandalized the nation, and led to a landmark Supreme Court showdown between the outraged Nixon administration and The Times.
Steven Spielberg’s new historical drama The Post tells the lesser known parallel story of the then-fledgling Washington Post’s scramble to keep up with the Times by acquiring their own copy of the Pentagon Papers, and the pressure that The Post’s involvement places on Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep). Graham is an inexperienced publisher who inherited control of The Post after her husband’s untimely death. With The Post about to go financially public, with the Nixon administration bearing down on them, and with The Post’s legendary editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) chomping at the bit to make deadline, Graham must navigate a minefield of personal, vocational, and even constitutional crises.
Courtesy of 20th Century FoxOn one level, The Post is a fairly standard issue journalism drama: the worried phone calls to sources, the ticking deadline clock, the no-going-back pressure of printing a bombshell report. The newspaper-based portions of the story, while solidly entertaining and inarguably well-crafted, are not meant to reinvent the wheel. Spielberg makes it all seem so easy and the elements work together seamlessly. But, unlike its most celebrated newspaper-movie genre-mates All the President’s Men and Spotlight, something about The Post doesn’t stick to the ribs. Spielberg and his sterling cast serve the material superbly, but they don’t transcend it. The phrase “the Spielberg touch” finds it most literal application here. The movie feels merely touched by Spielberg, sprinkled with a liberal (cough!) dose of inventive camerawork and tinseltown shine, but short on the artistic specificity that defines his other recent “grown-up” masterpieces Lincoln and Bridge of Spies.
Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay flows briskly through the key points of the story, handing us each piece right before quickly handing us the next. Hannah and Singer keep things humming along by easing back on the obsession with detail that often defines the investigative journalism subgenre. The script is more interested in principles than in process, and the dialogue sometimes has the unmistakable sound of summarization. What it misses in verisimilitude, it covers in sheer momentum. The movie has a smooth overall cohesion, something most screenwriters dream of achieving.
Still, it doesn’t have many “moments,” and Spielberg has always been a master of the moment. With The Post, Spielberg has finally done what his detractors have been begging him to do for decades: make a normal three-act movie. But Spielberg had never been normal. The Post is a very good movie. I’m just not sure it’s a great Spielberg movie
Even without the space to do their very best work, Spielberg and his longtime collaborators manage to keep the quality level very high. Spielberg’s roving camera finds an extraordinary number of ways visualize “people carrying paper” and “people talking near desks.” The swift screenplay is greatly aided by Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar’s invisible editing. Janusz Kaminski’s lighting brings a gentle Hollywood glow to Rick Carter’s muted period production design, and John Williams’ score pays clever homage to the stern TV news themes of the 1960s.
Taking modern film history as a whole, we are not lacking for movies that remind us of the merits of a free press; but in the Trump era, you know what? We’ll take one. President Trump lacks the Machiavellian stature of Richard Nixon (seen in The Post only distantly through a White House window, a silhouette angrily barking orders into an Oval Office phone), but the parallel of a President twisting under the pressure of an unfavorable (read: fact-based) press is crystal clear. Don’t be surprised if Hollywood showers The Post with award nominations come January, in sheer #resist ecstasy.
Still, there’s a bit more to this film than its much touted timeliness. The Post does not shy away from the legacy of over-coziness between the press and the president that The Pentagon Papers implicity revealed. Graham and Bradlee must both reckon with the professional blindness brought on by their past personal closeness to the Obama, I mean, the Kennedy administration.
The truly distinguishing surprise of The Post is its focus on Katherine Graham, as played by Meryl Streep. In Streep’s hand, Graham’s journey from earnest socialite to the publishing powerhouse is a marvel to behold. A lesser actor and a lesser director would have turned Graham into a cardboard women’s-lib cutout, a character who simply sheds a weak-willed conservative mode of being for an empowered progressive one. Streep is far too intelligent an actor for such condescensions. Streep lends enormous dignity, and indeed era-accurate femininity, to every stage of Graham’s evolution. Tom Hanks brings a nice Hanksian twinkle to the stalwart Bradlee, and Bob Odenkirk as a dogged but klutzy reporter steals every scene he’s in. But everyone seems to know that this is Streep’s show, and they rightly give her the stage.
The Post is an expertly crafted crowd-pleaser that benefits from Spielberg’s skills more than it harnesses his most dazzling abilities. When the dust settles on the Trump administration in 2020 (please, God!), it’s hard to know if The Post will distinguish itself as more than a sturdy piece of protest entertainment by one of the best creative teams in the business. For now, in 2017, we have all the reason we need to enjoy its effortless overall presentation and its unexpected feminist undercurrents. Even if it ends up being more a movie of the moment than a timeless classic, The Post still undeniably delivers.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5