There’s such an insistence for a story like The Post in the current climate of questioning the free press that Steven Spielberg’s film feels more grand in its historical relevance than it does in its capacity as a well-made picture. It’s as though there’s such an overwhelming urge for winking and nudging as he celebrates the necessity of journalists that Spielberg ultimately caves to the easy lesson. In this sense, The Post is a very entertaining film that is easy to digest and decipher with its message, despite not being Spielberg at his A game.
Maintaining a focus on journalism, the director keeps us locked in the room with the staff of the Washington Post as they weigh publishing the biggest story of 1971: classified documents have been leaked from the Pentagon, detailing a string of events behind the scenes that led up to the Vietnam War. For some at the paper, it’s a natural choice to publish the truth. Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) knows it’s the right thing to do and is willing to risk the paper being targeted by the supreme court, pushing forward even after the legal teams scratch their heads with worry. Reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) also hopes it’s right, having risked his freedom with his secret calls to obtain the documents.
But for the paper’s publisher, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), it’s the hardest decision of her life, as there’s much at stake if the Post were to become a target and be brought to court. She already has a hard enough time being a female publisher of a paper that has made her journey to going public at the stock market a rough ordeal; she doesn’t want to be blamed as the woman who destroyed the Washington Post. Graham also has friends in political circles, such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who could be hurt and sever ties with her if the paper goes forward with writing about the documents. Whether or not to go through with the story all comes down to her, in a captivating string of phone calls and meetings.
To ensure that the message is heard, Spielberg’s direction is kept brisk and blunt. The pacing of the newspaper’s offices, with their infinite typewriters and large printing presses, is fast and exciting. There’s invigorating intensity when the various teams begin the process of printing the day’s paper, from the conceptual design of the layout to the assembly of the printing plates to the earthquake of the building when those towering presses start chugging. The plot zips along with vigor, darting from Graham having a tough conversation with McNamara over publication to Bradlee’s reporters sprawled out around his house trying to piece together the leaked documents. Combined with Spielberg’s brilliant shots, it’s an energized world, and it’s a pleasure to get lost in its many working parts.
The grand focus and celebration of journalism, however, leads to the many secondary elements this story coming off either too simple or too blatant. There’s never a moment when Streep’s character doesn’t feel the pressure of her position, from her meeting with the stuffy board members to her tearful bedside monologue about trying to represent women. There’s even a scene in which she leaves the supreme court and a female crowd surrounds her, just in case you didn’t believe she was an inspiration. The scenes of war and politics are mostly kept to the side, though Spielberg doesn’t shy away from a brief Vietnam battle or a reenactment of Nixon’s phone calls against the press with his back turned to the camera. And if the current correlation wasn’t clear enough from all of this, the dialogue is littered with known winks and jabs at the world of 2018, with characters suggesting that things couldn’t possibly get any worse in the country.
While The Post isn’t exactly subtle with its focus on journalism’s most influential and tough challenges in the 20th century, it’s still just as engaging as most of Spielberg’s films. Hanks and Streep prove themselves to be top talents, though Hanks seems to be venturing more outside of his usually clean persona while Streep is stomping through familiar territory. The supporting players are all in top form, from David Cross as the snarky Post reporter to Jesse Plemons as the nervous legal expert. And it’s an immaculate film to look at in how Spielberg stages it all; Bob Odenkirk’s character calling his contact from a payphone on the street has some of the most memorable shots, his reflection on the plating and the police cars behind him.
I could write an even longer piece on how The Post should be made and seen at this time, stressing the importance of journalism at a time when high-priced lawyers can take down a publication and the president of the United States denounces publications and broadcasts as fake news. But the film drives home all these points with a jackhammer, and I honestly didn’t feel as though there was much lost in the allegorical translation. This may hold the film back from being one of the best movies of the year, but it does seem to get the job done of championing the free press and is going to make for one heck of an exciting classroom film for its brilliant cinematography and fantastic actors. Whether its message sticks in these odd times remains to be seen.