The President of the United States crows about “fake news”. His advisors speak on “alternative facts”. The most popular news websites peddle clickbait, sports journalism has been reduced to “Fan TV” shouting matches, and the video game industry buys good reviews for perks. In other words, it is a lousy time for the integrity of the fifth estate.
But it wasn’t always so, or at least, that’s what Steven Spielberg wants you to believe. His latest, where he unites once again with Tom Hanks, is a film rooted in the now, even as it depicts events that happened over forty years ago. The media storm over the Pentagon Papers, and the Nixon administration’s efforts to keep them under wraps in the face of the first amendment may well be what The Post is about, but no one should be deceived: this is about Trump, and the media landscape that allowed him to get to where he is today – and where we head from here. So, is it another Spielbergian triumph in line with some of his other Hanks collaborations (only now with the giant that is Meryl Streep in tow too)? Or is it a preachy, overly layered lecture?
As Richard Nixon’s cabinet continues trying to find a path to victory in Vietnam, Katharine Graham (Streep) confronts the task of being the first female owner of a major newspaper, the Washington Post, dealing with idealistic editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and a veritable hoard of concerned shareholders. Bradlee and Graham’s partnership, and their ethics, are tested when they gain the opportunity to publish the Pentagon Papers, which details the harsh reality of Vietnam and how the government has been misleading the public about it.
So, yes, The Post is a lecture. Yes, it is preachy, and idealistic in its message, that the purity of print media is so easily cast aside or tarnished. But, almost despite this, The Post is still an excellent film, but it isn’t Hanks, or the central narrative, or even Spielberg’s direction that is accomplishing it. The Post’s shining light is Meryl Streep, and boy should I be watching more films with her in them.
Streep’s Graham is the beating heart of this film. So much of The Post is just rooms of men arguing back and forth about the intermingling of journalistic ethics and the legality of releasing classified material into the public sphere, but Spielberg succeeds most ably in placing a feminist core at the centre of his movie. From start to finish, Streep in enthralling as Graham, showcasing her journey from being an almost acquiescing doormat in charge of a company in name only, to the woman who is at the heart of one of the most major decisions in journalistic integrity ever made.
She is truly excellent: when she tries, in vain, to interject a well-researched point on spending at a board meeting; when she puts on a happy face when being patronised by Bradlee; when she recalls some simple kindness from her daughter after her husband died; and when, in that critical moment, she has to decide between Bradlee’s ideals and Nixon’s threat.
Through her Spielberg states his most important point, on how women in this era are taking tentative steps towards greater control of their destinies, but remain lodged in a world where they are so used to being side-lined that it can be hard to feel important even when you really are. Freedom of the press is a worthy ideal to fight for, but freedom for women is a worthier one: their paths intersect in The Post, where a patriarchal lie machine, headed by Nixon, needs to be met head-on and defeated.
And it is in the films treatment of women generally that it also showcases its greatness. Streep is brilliant enough, but the women of the supporting cast also push things along in a way that the men fail to do: Alison Brie’s daughter character, who seems throwaway at first, but has one of the films best emotional moments late on; Bradlee’s wife (Sarah Bradley), who also seems throwaway at first, but then delivers the films best singular script moment; and even the really minor roles, which serve to remind the audience that in The Post, a battle is won for female equality, but the war will rage on and on.
The Post’s actual central narrative is all fine and dandy, but is predictable to the extreme, to by enjoyed largely as a platform for performance. Even those with no knowledge of the Pentagon Papers will figure where this story is going, with Spielberg creating tension largely through the ciper of Graham’s part in the proceedings. That the heroes succeed here will come to the surprise of no one. Spielberg’s pining for this era of journalism can come off as a little grating, and a tad glorifying – the 70’s weren’t all Woodward and Bernstein if we’re being honest – but it is a refreshing rejoinder to today’s situation. Though, we shouldn’t take it too far: after all, no one was actually punished legally for the Pentagon Papers’ release, and if recent events have proven anything, it’s that concepts of justice do not automatically come after the unveiling of truth.
Where Spielberg really errs with his plot is in his obvious desire to imitate Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men, with The Post routinely acting as if it is a prequel to the 1976 classic, as opposed to its own creation. The tone is the same, the tempo is similar and in its last scene, almost a parody of franchise staging in blockbusters, directly ties a link between Spielberg and Pakula, in a manner that leaves you laughing as the credits roll.
But its Spielberg and Hanks, and Hanks is at his typical best here, playing Bradlee with the perfect combination of patronising machismo and legitimate charm, a man totally confident in his position when it comes to Graham, but not quite assholish enough to dislike. His idealism is positively infectious, an important quality when it comes to the remainder of the newspaper cast, like Bob Odenkirk, David Cross and Bradley Whitford, who are all limited enough in what they get to offer, but are all entertaining. The other players are a tad better: Matthew Rhys gets only two real sequences as whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg, but both are suburb, while Jesse Plemons, fresh from his Black Mirror turn, has a nice third act back-and-forth with numerous characters as the newspapers legal counsel. And always there is Streep of course, a serious contender for performance of the year already.
The script, from Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, is a serviceable thing, lacking in truly obviousn quotable moments, exalted by the delivery of the principals. A tension-filled conversation between Bradlee and Graham is oozing with words unspoken – “Take your finger out my eye” he snaps, to her general shock, though she grits her teeth and bears it for propriety’s sake – and much of Graham’s most effective time is silent, like when she comes to the crucial decision of the piece, a drawn out portrait shot as she listens to a phone conversation. Bruce Underwood’s Robert McNamera, a somewhat sympathetic but largely cowardly figure, warns Graham that Nixon is not to be under-estimated: “If there’s a way to destroy, by God, he’ll find it!” he roars, in a moment of rare auditory passion in the screenplay. And Bradlee, in probably Hanks’ best moment, outlines his sense of heartbreak when he realizes his friendship with JFK and Jackie was motivated on their part by a desire for sympathetic news coverage, and that his own journalistic credentials were weaker as a result: ““I never thought of Jack as a source. I thought of him as a friend…and that was my mistake.”
Spielberg’s visual direction this time out, with Kaminski in tow, matches what we saw in the similarly helmed Bridge Of Spies, with a sort of quasi-sepia tone to things, period specific, the film palette the very colour of news ink and paper. Splashes of colour are rare here, even in the more opulent party scenes, and there is an oppressive, yet appropriate, feel to much that The Post shows us, that matches its depiction of women, who seem almost prisoners within the confines of many scenes. In terms of moments to make your eyes pop, this isn’t going to be one of Spielberg’s more memorable efforts, barring a few things here and there, like a triumphant montage of papers going to print, which rumbles through the Washington Post building like the trumpets of Jericho, ready to tear down the walls of villainy. Or at least, so, I surmise, is Spielberg’s intention.
“News is the first rough draft of history” opines Streep’s Graham at one point in The Post, a sentiment that speaks to people like me, veritably obsessed with the past and how we write about it. This is why media is so vitally important: you only get one first impression, and if its tarnished, or manipulated or, worst of all, censored, you don’t get a do-over. The message rings loud and clear for today, for both the President of the United States and the forces that, willingly or unwillingly, assisted in his meteoric rise to the top, and may yet be satisfied to collaborate for the sake of a few more clicks. The Post, while preachy, idealistic and nagging to a point, should be required watching for them.
For everyone else, there is much to love about The Post too. Its plot trundles a bit, and it won’t be winning much kudos or notice for its cinematography, score or even large parts of its script. But it’s cast is superb, from Underwood to Hanks, and Streep most of all, in a performance that should soon be winning her a few more gongs to make up for the litany of losing nominations. The Posts’ treatment and spotlight on women is to be commended and praised: it elevates this material, from a potentially sub-par Spielberg to a full-on Oscarbait. His next is Ready Player One, a film whose source material I was barely able to finish in the face of my scorn. I think I might be more interested in what Streep does next. Largely because of her, The Post is a film I can recommend.
(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures).