There are basically two types of Steven Spielberg movie these days: One is historical drama where heroes use the power of words to change the world (think Lincoln, Schindler’s List, and most recently Bridge of Spies), and the other is absurdist fantasy that seems to try to recapture the magic of E.T., including an unhealthy predilection for aliens and humanized animals (everything from the horrible War of the Worlds to War Horse) Obviously the former group is the best stuff, and I’m happy to report that The Post fits nicely into the pantheon of his 21st Century work.
The film focuses on the famous leak of the “Pentagon Papers,” a study commissioned by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (played in the film by Bruce Greenwood) that detailed the government’s lies about America’s involvement in Vietnam going as far back as Harry Truman, eventually leading to the end of the war. Leaked by Dan Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), we see the initial publishing by the New York Times before the Nixon Administration intervened, then the Washington Post’s decision to continue publication and take the fight to the Supreme Court in defense of the First Amendment.
Now, it doesn’t take a political science guru to see that this is very much a film of the moment. We’ve just been through a year where the President of the United States has engaged in the most combative relationship with the press that many of us have ever seen. Regardless of where you stand on his policies, Donald Trump has declared open war on journalism over the last year, and The Post exists to show us what happens when we don’t learn from history. In one of the film’s more inspired choices, Richard Nixon himself is a mostly-unseen antagonist, an angry silhouette pounding the Oval Office desk while Nixon’s actual recorded phone conversations play out to us in the audience. Your enjoyment of the film may vary based on your degree of veneration for the Fourth Estate, but you cannot deny the current relevance of a White House trying to silence and discredit the media to save its own reputation.
Many of Spielberg’s regulars are back for this one. John Williams handles the score, and Janusz Kaminski is once again in charge of the cinematography. Both men do their usual great work, particularly Kaminski, who juxtaposes brilliant single-take sequences around the Post’s newsroom and other locations with jaw-dropping static shots that show the gravity of the situation, most notably a scene in a hotel room with every inch of the beds covered with stacks of papers.
The cast is absolutely stellar. Tom Hanks stars as executive editor Ben Bradlee (a role for which Jason Robards won an Oscar in All the President’s Men), a gruff, growling old newsman serving as the film’s conscience. At first he wants to get a hold of the Papers just to score a few points in the Post’s rivalry with the New York Times, but as the film progresses, he switches gears to become a potential martyr to freedom of the press. Opposite him is Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham, the owner/publisher of the paper, and one of my personal heroes. She strikes a delicate balance between loyalty to her company, loyalty to her friends in the Washington elite (including McNamara), and loyalty to her own ideals and legacy.
Kay Graham was one of the greatest glass ceiling breakers, and Streep and Spielberg go to great lengths to show just how alone she was at times. The film’s events take place around the IPO of the paper, and very often there’s a noticeable segregation of the sexes. A dinner party quickly separates the women into another room when politics is raised. When Kay arrives at the stock exchange for the IPO ceremony, she passes a group of women on the staircase before opening the closed doors to reveal all the male bankers and investors.
Even with that, the best moments are when Hanks and Streep are together, just talking. Depending on the needs of journalism, Hanks alternates as the angel and devil on Streep’s shoulders, and with each scene she gains just a little more confidence to assert her own agency, and it works marvelously.
The supporting cast is a murderer’s row of character actors. You have Greenwood, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson, Jesse Plemons, Zach Woods from Silicon Valley, and in an unofficial reunion of Mr. Show, both David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, with the latter playing the pivotal role of Ben Bagdikian, the journalist who got the Papers from Ellsberg. I mean, goddam!
There’s a wonderful contrast between social classes in the film. Kay Graham is a socialite and a Washington insider (as is Bradlee, who was famously friends with JFK), and her business advisers are the stuffiest of stuffed shirts. The rest of the Post staff, regardless of pay grade, are the cogs in the machine, literally rolling up their sleeves and doing the dirty work to get the truth out. Now, that sort of dynamic differentiates the film from another recent portrait of journalistic heroism, Spotlight, which won Best Picture a couple years ago. That film was very much about the investigative procedure to expose pedophile priests and the Catholic Church’s longstanding cover-up, but the urgency was only in service of getting the scoop. That film was also much more evergreen, as the story is relatively self-contained, with the only continuing element being the fact that the Church still hasn’t solved its abuse problem. The Post, however, relies heavily on the modern parallels and on the decision of whether or not to publish a story that already exists. Both films have their own importance, and both films are exemplary in their own way.