Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford
Running time: 116 minutes
After classified documents detailing damning information about the US government’s involvement in the Vietnam War are leaked to the New York Times, Ben Bradlee (Hanks) – Editor-in-Chief of the Washington Post – wants in on the story. When the Nixon Administration issues a court injunction against the Times, however, widowed Post owner Katharine Graham (Streep) is left with a difficult decision to make.
“FAKE NEWS!” yells President Richard Nixon as the opening credits of The Post roll in…
…ok, so that doesn’t actually happen – but it might as well have.
That’s because Steven Spielberg’s latest – another addition to the long line of true-story newsroom dramas and political exposes released in the last few years – is as timely as anything to grace our cinema screens in the last 12 months.
The Post actually begins with a brief trip over to Southeast Asia as State department analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) accompanies US troops in combat. It’s a brief stint, but one that reminds us of the brutality and mercilessness of war. That, and a chance for Spielberg to get his Private Ryan shaped fix of military action out the way early doors. But the fleeting frames of battle are crucial to the narrative. What Ellsberg witnesses there, compared to what government officials are feeding the public back home, prompts him to later leak top secret documentation (known as the Pentagon Papers) to the press – namely, the folks over at the New York Times.
What follows is a densely political game of First Amendment tennis, where, on the one side, sits Hanks’ Bradlee and his small band of reporters-cum-freedom-of-speech fighters – including the wonderful better-call-Bob Odenkirk; and on the other, Nixon and the US government. In between is Streep’s Graham – balancing social life with increasing ownership pressures in a predominantly male-dominated world.
For the first hour though, The Post hardly feels like a Spielberg film at all. The rousing strings of a John Williams score are largely put on hold and the pacing notably slowed. Here – in a similar manner to that of his impressive 2012 wordathon, Lincoln – there’s talkin’a’plenty, as we must wade through the vast – but necessary – swamp of political jargon and historical checkpointing to enable The Post’s later narrative pastures to be as green as they eventually are.
That’s not to say that the film’s first half isn’t completely absent of the great auteur’s distinctive and celebrated style, however. Visually, this oozes Spielberg throughout. The meticulous attention to detail – in setting, character, costume, and lighting – makes for a lavishly vibrant period-piece (neatly ironic in a film about the printing of black and white, of course) onto which Spielberg continues to glitter with simple, but wonderful inventiveness – a scene in which three men frantically read a newspaper in unison as the morning wind blows pages from their grip is just one example of Spielberg’s impressive knack of injecting the seemingly mundane with creative genius.
And when the orchestral notes inevitably begin to soar in the film’s second half, The Post – and the narrative and moral crossroads it’s characters come to – is made all the more tense, emotional, and powerful as a result. In its latter stages, the film even takes the shape of something much more theatrical, as the narrative pacing is cranked up more than a few notches, and we jump frantically between households, between rooms, and between both ends of a telephone call, as dilemma follows dilemma.
Hanks – in a return to form after The Circle’s mixed reception – turns in a performance brimming with all the snappy gusto of the feet-on-desk, archetypal newspaper Editor we’ve become accustomed to seeing on the big screen. While his motives might remain unclear (are they morally righteous, or simply selfish?) Bradlee is occasionally egotistical, and almost always says exactly what is on his mind – so, of course, we love him.
But it is Streep who is the true beating heart of the piece, here. A slight cut away from the strong female historic figureheads she’s portrayed in recent times – Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette and of course The Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher – Streep’s Katharine Graham is far less assertive and self-assured, and – after inheriting her position of power from the sought-after men in her life – burdened by a crippling fear of failure. And yet, she remains honest and conscientious during a time of lies and cover-ups. A later monologue delivered by Bradlee’s wife, Tony (a disappointingly underused Sarah Paulson), perfectly encapsulates an underlying strength to be found within Graham that earlier you might not have thought to exist. And it’s through her own inner conflict that we get the film’s richest and most thorough exploration in character, providing the foundation for Streep to turn in a performance that rubs shoulders with her best this century.
While it might not quite be the finished article in the same way Spotlight is, The Post nevertheless delivers a timely, intricate, and intriguing Oscar runner that will give you plenty to ponder. Graham utters that newspapers are “a rough draft of history.” If so, does Spielberg’s film hint at awards success, or is it a warning of something much more alarming in our society?