by Jeff Reichert
Dir. Steven Spielberg, U.S., 20th Century Fox/DreamWorks
There are myriad delights contained within The Post, which should come as no surprise for a film by one of our most singularly ingratiating filmmakers. Steven Spielberg’s visual acuity and sensitivity to space and light remain leaps and bounds beyond the ken of most directors, and his impulse to put on a show and his ability to give an audience more than they ever knew they wanted are intact decades into his career. Thus this historical drama about a few crucial weeks in the life of the Washington Post in 1971, a period in which the New York Times scooped the small, regional paper of our nation’s capital by beginning to publish excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, swoops and swirls where it could have been staid and stately. The Post is a film that feels in constant motion, where the camera is often hurtling forward to catch up to the drama, which here takes the form of heated negotiations between Post publisher Katharine Graham and her editor Ben Bradlee around the ethics and efficacy of continuing to publish the Papers after the Times had raised the ire of the Nixon administration.
To tell this story, Spielberg’s surrounded himself with a pack of old hands, all clearly gleeful at the prospect of working with him and each other. The headliners are none other than Meryl Streep (Graham) and Tom Hanks (Bradlee). The first time they share the screen in The Post (and, surprisingly, in any film to date it seems) is a breakfast meeting early in the film, which Spielberg wisely frames largely in a lingering two shot. Better to just get out of their way. The pair crack and spar: Graham, her power over Bradlee gifted to her following her husband’s death, smart, as coiffed as Miranda Priestly but not nearly so sure of herself; Bradlee, confrontational, direct, played by Hanks with an intermittent Boston drawl and a series of constipated postures. They’ll face off a number of times throughout the film but always mindfully, respectfully. In The Post, these two are surrounded by Bruce Greenwood, Alison Brie, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Michael Stuhlbarg, and numerous other people you’ve seen in movies. Even in small roles, Spielberg and his casting directors over-deliver.
The Post, as you’ve probably heard, is indeed a ripping and timely yarn. At a shade under two hours, it’s a lighter lift than Spielberg’s last two “adult” pictures, 2012’s Lincoln and 2015’s Bridge of Spies, both of which pushed near two and half hours. With these three films, Spielberg has crafted something like a Trilogy of Good Decisions, in which, at pivotal moments in our nation’s history, more or less decent people took the opportunity to make the right choices based on fundamental beliefs in foundational American values. If Lincoln and Bridge of Spies were both obvious Obama-era pleas to tamp down the rancor in our politics, appeals to better angels long corrupted by greed and hunger for power, it’s not hard to identify the driving force behind a movie about newspaper freedoms that was green-lit, filmed, finished, and premiered in the first 12 months of the Trump presidency.
If the last newspaper thriller of note, the Academy Award-winning Spotlight, better than it had any rights to be, focused on the mechanics of reporting and breaking a story, The Post, though it features similar elements, has somewhat different aims. First, by focusing on Graham and her Post rather than the actions of Daniel Ellsberg (played here by Matthew Rhys), who leaked the Pentagon Papers, or the New York Times, which initially published them, the film opens itself up to dissect gender roles in the power structures of that time. The initial spec script was written by first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah and she succinctly doles out scenarios of polite society, which Graham herself was very much a part of, self-separating on the basis of gender. Graham, who only took over the leadership of her family’s paper after the suicide of her husband, represents a curious heroine for a movie such as this. Rather than positioning her as a feminist warrior, The Post cuts closer to the truth of a woman who said, in her own biography: “Far from troubling me that my father thought of my husband and not me, it pleased me. In fact, it never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper.”
The Post also probes the “free press” as an instrument at the nexus of money and political power, good journalism being, with some regularity, subject to the conflicting whims of both. Graham’s father, a wealthy industrialist, bought the paper in 1933 at a bankruptcy auction, a fact not mentioned in the film, curious for a movie that spends a great deal of time talking about the paper’s dire finances. (Flash forward to 2013, when the flagging Post was bought by Jeff Bezos.) Graham herself was friend to LBJ, and, importantly for this film, Robert McNamara, who commissioned the study that became the Pentagon Papers. Bradlee, a confidant of JFK, was there with Jackie the night the president’s body was returned to Washington. Charting the ethical trials of those who write the news while navigating their close relationships with those who make the news in a sympathetic fashion has value. Many today rail and seethe against a press grown too cozy with power, but The Post suggests the degree to which journalism often only exists as a direct result of the intervention of wealthy players, and that access to important stories is twinned with a discomfiting closeness between reporters and historical actors.
Oddly, the movie may be least successful as a rallying cry for the First Amendment, The Post’s purpose in all but open statement from the director. When the freedom of the press is most directly addressed, largely in the climactic scenes, the film’s rocketing momentum slows to a crawl and gives way to hoary declamation. The screenplay is better when it withholds—throughout The Post, characters walk and talk (the other credited writer, Josh Singer, who also co-wrote Spotlight, is a West Wing alum), and drop references to people or events that would have been familiar knowledge to those at the time. Forty years removed, there’s an intriguing opacity to what’s often discussed that’s left productively untroubled.
In its ultimate love for newspapers, The Post is almost cornpone, but should we expect any less from Spielberg? He can’t help but toss Creedence Clearwater Revival under a portion of the film’s ill-advised Vietnam-set opening. He can’t help but have his characters knock into chairs, drop change from their pockets at crucial moments, and nearly get hit by taxicabs while rushing headlong through city streets. He can’t help but film the plate layout for the Post’s Pentagon Papers cover story with such reverence that you’d think it was Ark of the Covenant. He can’t help himself from a climactic crane up over a massive printing press as his two protagonists walk into the distance joshing. He can’t help himself from following that shot with a deeply curious coda, which uses the movie narrative logic of cliffhangers and sequels to position The Post as prequel to All the President’s Men. Spielberg, historical entertainer, is both at his best and most dubious in The Post. At this point in his career, he cannot be anyone but himself.
For all the value of his three most recent period pictures, they feel less vital as direct responses to the world around us than as filmed civics lessons, like popcorn Rossellini in his historical films era. The Post will certainly do what it is clearly intended to do, at least for left-leaning audiences in big cities: justify continuing digital subscriptions to local papers of record, all of which are under threat these days. I jest somewhat, but do fear The Post is a film that settles too cozily in its niche of self-righteous middlebrow liberalism to jibe fully with the firebrand impulse that led it to be made and released with such rapidity. A film settling into a niche is actually quite fine in itself—let the art be the art. But might one not wish that Spielberg, with his intentions, his platform, and his burning love of America, had dropped something into this dark moment that felt a hair more dangerous?