Such are the times that we live in that a well-made movie documenting one of the most important journalistic investigations in American history that showcases the importance of the first amendment and argues vehemently for the necessity of a free and independent press feels like a partisan political statement at all. Yet here we are, and Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which details the discovery and publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1970s is the first major film conceived and filmed entirely in the Trump presidency and is bitingly contemporary in its main themes, even if it sometimes too on-the-nose in its observations.
The central players in this thrilling drama are, as the marquee might suggest, Tom Hanks as editor-in-chief of the Washington Post Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, the first female owner of a major newspaper in a field dominated on all levels by men. Both of their performances are exactly what we would expect from actors of their calibre, with Hanks entering comfortably into the role of a fast-thinking and fast-talking editor barking orders in his newsroom. Meanwhile Meryl Streep displays the difficult mix of steely determination and fragile insecurity with such dexterity and ease that it adds yet another chapter into her legend as the greatest living actor of all time, and at least in this author’s estimation is more than enough for her to fully deserve her umpteenth nomination for Best Actress this time around.
As we enter their story the Post is on the risky verge of becoming a public company and the New York Times has beaten everyone else to the scoop of publishing a report on the Pentagon Papers – a damning indictment on the war in Vietnam showing corruption and public deception of several presidential administrations spanning decades.. When the Nixon administration files an injunction against the Times in an effort to censure them, it falls to Graham, Bradlee, and the staff of the Post to pick up the slack partly out of competitiveness and partly out of moral sense of democratic duty to find and publish the rest of the Pentagon Papers.`
Muddying the waters are several clear obstacles. One of which is the startlingly frank portrayal of the potential conflicts of interest at play, whether it is Bradlee’s close relationship with John and Jackie Kennedy that may have made him pull punches against the White House in the past or Graham’s current long-standing friendship with former Secretary of State Robert MacNamara who commissioned the Pentagon Papers in the first place. Then there are the legal and financial implications of turning a newly public company like the Post into the front line of resistance against the White House. Into this quagmire Bradlee and Graham stand as two people on opposite sides of the aisle. The frequent conflicts about the proper course to take between the activist Bradlee who has little to lose and the more pragmatist Graham who has new shareholders, hundreds of employees, and her family’s legacy to consider produce some of the most compelling scenes in the movie and a welcome introduction of nuance and complexity into a subject matter that is frequently black and white.
Surrounding Streep and Hanks are a cavalcade of mostly TV actors and actresses anchored by Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk as the investigative reporter who breaks open the case, West Wing alum Bradley Whitford as a condescending board member, and American Horror Story mainstay Sarah Paulson as Ben Bradlee’s wife who is given far too little to do but manages to make the most of it. There isn’t really a clunky performance amongst the large ensemble cast which is crucial because there are a lot of moving pieces in this movie and more than a few clunky exposition scenes, but the actors help keep the pace at a steady clip.
But above all, this is a Spielberg movie, for better or worse. Employing more of the classical style he used most recently in Lincoln making the actions of the central players seem almost mythical at times. Some scenes could almost be used as still paintings because they are composed so well, especially in medium and long shots. And for a movie in which the outcome is well-documented history, Spielberg still manages to wring out as much tension as possible to make it as thrilling as any work of fiction. And he makes something as mundane as the process of putting together the daily newspaper seem like the most interesting thing in the world.
Spielberg does all the fundamental things well in this movie but unfortunately The Post also features some of his worst directing instincts. After all the hard work in keeping the moving pieces in place, he defaults to an ending that is overly sentimental and hokey as he lays out the subtext extremely thickly, especially with regards to Graham’s role as a feminist figure. In addition the ending commits the cardinal biopic sin of making all the major characters make grand speeches about the importance of their actions as if they could somehow intuit how their roles would be interpreted historically. It is as if Spielberg felt the need to underline for all of us that even though this is a historical drama, its lessons are important for us today.
Therein lies the chief problem of the film. The film is so concerned with making comment of contemporary issues and is constantly underlining parallels between the press then and the press now, between Nixon and Trump, and between the Pentagon Papers and the Mueller investigation that in its worst moments it can come across as an agitprop object lesson. Fortunately though the craft of the filmmaking and the acting is superlative and carries this movie through. While it cannot hold a candle to the best journalism movies like Spotlight and All The President’s Men it is still worth checking out, even if only because it is impossible for a movie to be more of the moment.
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. Starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Bradley Whitford.
Runtime: 116 minutes