Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson
In January of 2017 just a few short hours after his inauguration, President Donald Trump began a war with the press. It’s a situation that has perpetuated, and now dominates the perception of his time in office. That war, over the veracity of the stories published, and even the nature of truth itself, has quite transparently been a bid to deflect and obfuscate as his administration struggles around the man’s ego, gluttony and weak-willed stupidity. He has shamed his nation; one with no shortage of reasons to feel shameful already.
The Post is a period piece based on true events, directed by Steven Spielberg, but it feels like a film about right now. It is a response of indignation. It’s a protest sign held aloft. So eager and heady is its will to throw punches, that it is also scrappy, hasty, messy and uneven. It could be derided as a rush-job, one lacking in wider scope or consideration. These arguments can be – and sometimes have been – made. But that very choppiness also makes it one of the more interesting films Spielberg has put his name to in over a decade. Not since Munich has he produced anything nearly as noteworthy.
His film tells the story of The Washington Post’s deliberation over printing classified government studies into the validity of the war in Vietnam; studies that reveal the illegitimacy of the endeavour and the decision to remain in an unwinnable war for the sake of saving face. Meryl Streep plays the paper’s owner, Kay Graham, presented here as an initially timid character; a woman who has inherited the job following her husband’s suicide, and whose interests are perhaps more financial than moralistic. Tom Hanks stars opposite her as Ben Bradlee, the impassioned editor, ready to risk legal action and the future of the paper in order to preserve the first amendment. Meanwhile, the supporting cast is intimidatingly rich, to say the least (and more on their interaction later).
Arriving just in time for awards season, this is clearly a prestige picture with more clout than most, one that feels bent double from the effort of getting here on time. The subject matter feels vital, but the pedigree almost works against it. It feels like Oscar bait, pure and simple. And the errors in judgement are all over the place. From the Vietnam-set false start (brazenly a half-hearted attempted to move the picture out from behind a series of desks) to the whole-heartedly bungled ‘cliffhanger’ ending at the Watergate Hotel. In between, scenes often read as dashed-off, with blocking that makes little sense outside of a theatre space. The Post feels awkward. But despite that there’s a fair bit to admire.
But not at first. In truth the first act of the film feels like a bit of a chore. Characters are everywhere as Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s script does its best to ape the walk-and-talk immediacy of Aaron Sorkin (former The West Wing star Bradley Whitford is right at home with this), while real dramatic meat remains scarce. Yet The Post is a strange beast, one that comes alive by osmosis as the pieces are drawn together for a far superior mid-section. Though one could argue that the scope of the film should be flung far wider, the relative smallness is its saving grace. This is not a film about how the printing of classified documents impacted the United States as a whole. This is the story of how the printing of classified documents impacted the printers. It’s an inside-job that details the internal politics of a paper, where profit margins and job security butt up against journalistic integrity.
Spielberg is one of American cinema’s true romantics, forever eager to wash the screen with sentimentality, legitimate or otherwise. And while he gets his opportunity at the film’s closing to get dumbly heavy-handed (with able assistance from John Williams), much of The Post feels altogether more anonymous. It’s not as self-conscious as some of his recent work. What is romanticised throughout is the newspaper industry itself. The idea of the free press is what Spielberg gets misty-eyed over, and its a wistful ideal indeed. From the collaborative excitement of the journalists to the nitty-gritty of the presses themselves, there’s as much affection here as in the final season of The Wire, albeit expressed in a very different style.
The oversight is the film’s suggestion that, in 1971, this moral victory was all-encompassing; that we would never have to weather the likes of Rupert Murdoch. That would be too cynical for Spielberg. Waters too muddied. Nevertheless, when his film is down in the deadline politics of controversial journalism, he shows his mastery at getting us involved.
His big name duo of Streep and Hanks aren’t good. Streep in particular jars, tossing off an overwrought performance that one can’t help but imagine handled with interesting subtlety in more inspired hands. Hanks is better; Ben Bradlee allows him a rare opportunity to play in different shades, but they feel alien to him. It’s the aforementioned supporting cast who raise this one up. Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Alison Brie, Pat Healy, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, the forever perfect Carrie Coon, the aforementioned Whitford, Jesse Plemmons, David Cross, Michael Stuhlbarg, Deidre Lovejoy. The list goes on. What’s more, it never feels like a flock of seagulls fighting one another for scraps. There’s a reason these are some of the best of the best. There are no small parts to these actors, and they do their jobs superbly, every one of them giving over to the larger piece.
And they play no small part in transforming The Post from a messy film into what feels like a modestly important one. A comment on the now through contrast. Trump’s crazy tyranny is as upsetting as the stalemate over what remains newsworthy. In an almost throwaway scene, Hanks’ Bradlee witnesses a protest (and is that a Shia La Beouf cameo in there?). What’s underscored is how, in Spielberg’s vision of 1971, the press motivates the public. It’s a direct correlation. In 2017 and in 2018 their role is more vital than ever. The Post is a cry for integrity as we globally face down its absence. It dares to dream of a press that can still bring a cancerous government to heel. And for that reason it feels alive and immediate.
Sometimes a film perceived to be great is really only a good one. And sometimes a film that is only middling manages to be great. This is one of those.