Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running Time: 115 mins
Synopsis: Katherine Graham (Streep) has found herself as the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, The Washington Post. Under pressure from the men who surround her as she attempts to take the company public. A challenge that becomes even tougher when her editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) wants to print an expose about a major Government cover-up regarding the Vietnam war. A decision that will risk their careers and even their very freedom.
Steven Spielberg (Greatest Living Director in case you weren’t sure) is most known for his adept use of iconic moments, thrilling action set-pieces and heartfelt character dynamics. But rarely do we speak of his astute political viewpoints, ones that his more mature offerings capture through the prism of historical events. Spielberg is shrewd enough to realise that his audience will find deeper meaning when not challenged by in your face modern settings that feel all too on the nose. Sometimes he even tackles current themes through the lens of his blockbuster offerings, such as War of the Worlds bleak 9/11-afflicted view of a homegrown attack. It is in those smaller dramas though where he most reveals his topical exploratory nature. What is Munich if not a hard look at how Governments deal with terrorism on foreign soil, or Bridge of Spies’s timely reflection of Cold War tensions against a steadily building US/Russia present day terseness. Yet even with the potential for such potent and portentous messages Spielberg always values entertainment first, with The Post being no different.
Working with the urgency of other elder directors such as Ridley Scott (The Post took barely 9 months from script to screen whilst he also put the finishing touches to his other 2018 picture, the effects heavy Ready Player One), and that sense of momentum carries over into the film itself. An explosive immediate prologue drops into the heart of the Vietnam War. Spielberg once again capturing the shock and awe of warfare but this time without the rampant gore of Saving Private Ryan. This is a film of more cerebral inquests. The brief glimpse of fighting only used to enhance just what is at stake here. It is 1971 and the war drags on evermore. One witness to the atrocities, a documentarian tasked by the White House to add his two cents to an all seeing paper regarding the US Governments role in this war torn country, decides enough is enough and steals these so called ‘Pentagon Papers’. Leaked to the press in the form of the New York Times, much to the dismay of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks).
A formidable, brutally forthright man, as seen in the cowering nature of those around him, Bradlee has a hunger and a drive to latch onto the biggest story by any means possible. The paper’s increasing goal towards tabloid nonsense stories aggrieves him (the first of many digs at the current state of the media), with Hanks playing slightly against type in a character once given life in All the President’s Men (there played by Jason Robards). Hard edged, opinionated and stubborn, unlike the usual nice guy roles Hanks plays, yet thanks to Hanks ever winning charm you still warm to the man. Noble to the last, and fiercely loyal to his paper. A fact that causes much consternation when it appears that publishing said papers could result in indictment by a President uncaring of things such as the First Amendment. In this world of ‘fake news’ and Presidential manipulation of the media, it doesn’t take a degree to see what Spielberg is rallying against here. The championing of the truth and the strength of real journalism celebrated rather than scorned. It is a message he lays on thickly but effectively, subtly boiling your blood in dynamic dialogue matches between those journalists and the ones who stand in their way.
Those people are the investors and bureaucrats whom have just seen the Newspaper company floated on the New York stock exchange, in the second part of this two stage story. Whilst Bradlee and his team do battle for the story, we have the tale of Katherine Graham as the newly appointed publisher of the Washington Post. A powerhouse of a woman given to a powerhouse actor in Meryl Steep, but what is surprising is the script (written by Josh Singer and newcomer Elizabeth Hannah) subtly builds her strength. This is not Streep diving into speeches of animalistic passion, but a performance of vulnerability and quiet grace. Katherine never wanted this position, the role only given to her due to the suicide of her husband, content in her role as a lavish party thrower and dedicated mother. Her love for the paper though forces her to fight on, no mean feat in this male dominated world she finds herself in. Treated as a footnote in her own company, an early scene of Graham in a conference meeting is devastating as she cannot find the confidence to speak up, Streep’s face a heartbreaking concoction of fear, sadness and defeat. Gradually though she finds her calling, especially when the prospect of publishing the papers leaves her caught between protecting her friends (her social circle primarily consists of politicians directly involved in the leaked documents), saving her company and doing the ‘right’ thing. Spielberg and Streep never make that decision easy, taking time to sketch the dimensions of such a choice.
The Post also marks itself out as one of the more feminist leaning films in Spielberg’s oeuvre. Graham representing those women who have felt crowed and dominated by the men in their worlds, mining inner reserves of strength that shock those around. Some of these moments really sing, steadily built to and feeling earned. Whilst others do veer far too close to clunkingly cloying, two staircase scenes spring to mind, that just about work via that dedicated Spielberg love for unfiltered sincerity. He also builds a mighty fine bevy of female performers around her, from Alison Brie’s remarkably brief cameo as Graham’s daughter to Sarah Paulson as Bradlee’s indomitable wife to the always wonderful Carrie Coon as one of the many journalists wiring away in the newsroom. The Post once again reminds us of just how good Spielberg is at ensembles. Hanks and Streep no doubt the leads, but all around them are terrific character actors each given their time in the spotlight. Standouts are hard to find as all deliver the whip smart dialogue with energetic urgency, but Bob Odenkirk shines quite brightly as the reporter responsible for bringing the papers to light. His glint in the eye, and exasperated doggedness a joy to watch. One scene of verbal to and fro between him and Jesse Plemons’ lawyer proves just what can be accomplished with great dialogue, bold framing and involving performances.
As to be expected the craft is impeccable throughout. John Williams composing a score of bouncy foreboding, elevating the thriller aspect even when the visuals aren’t necessarily dripping in fireworks. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography perhaps relies a little too much on that soft lighting that permeates a lot of Spielberg’s more recent output, but some shots truly showcase just why Spielberg is the master. A printing press violently coming to life, shaking the building as Odenkirk’s reporter feverishly types is an image of burgeoning relief and excitement after the breathless verbal chasing of the preceding scenes. As a whole the newsroom is by far the most thrillingly captured part of the film, clanging typewriters, yelling reporters and a roaming camera fostering an atmosphere of urgent immediacy. The detail is never lost though, from little glimpses of editorial chopping to the way Bradlee handles his staff, it feels excitingly alive.
If I could have one nitpick it would be that The Post lacks the emotional hook of its fellow journalism pictures such as the Oscar-winning Spotlight, outside of that explosive prologue Spielberg largely avoids the human element of the conflict these journalists are so desperate to blow open. It also perhaps feels a little predictable even for those who aren’t familiar with the story. These are minor points though in a film that prides intelligence, ethics and femininity, refracting its issues through the events of the past to become more incisively relevant to today. The Post is not a late career masterpiece for the ‘Greatest Living Director’ but it is a bloody good film.
Verdict: The Post is Spielberg at peak directorial confidence, utilising a rich ensemble and a detailed potently resonant script to tell a tale as sadly vital today as it was then.