There are several names in Hollywood that demand an immediate degree of respect upon their being intoned. Spielberg. Hanks. And by God, Streep. Imagine a strange bizzaro-universe version of our world where, beyond expectation, these three cosmic entities somehow manage to align, in order to illuminate our mere mortal lives. Impossible, you say? Then hearken, say I, and head unto the local theater to see The Post, a rather excellent film that somehow draws all three of these heavyweights together. Much like Michael Mann’s Heat, The Post manages to draw together two of the greatest actors of their time (in that case it was Pacino and Deniro), and place them under the direction of one of the great directors of the late 20th/early 21st century (although to elevate Mann to that level might be a bit generous). Spielberg has, admittedly, had a few misses along with his hits, but The Post falls solidly into the latter category.
[SPOILER ALERT: Click through below the jump to read my review of The Post. In that the events of this movie are based on well-documented historical events, I will be referring somewhat to them, while respecting the fact that many of my readers may not be aware of the historical outcome of these events – click through and be warned!]
The Post captures the moment of our times, despite being set in the early 1970s. The plot follows the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the New York Times, a series of documents that were commissioned by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara [Bruce Greenwood] in order to study the feasibility of winning the Vietnam War (these papers were commissioned in 1965). Their finding? The war was impossible to win – and yet, the Johnson and Nixon administrations continued to pour blood and treasure into the conflict, ensuring the deaths of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese in the ensuing years.
As The Times publishes its huge exposé, The Washington Post’s editor Ben Bradlee [Tom Hanks] is putting pressure on his staff of reporters and editors to try to catch up – he uses subterfuge (in the form of interns “delivering” packages to try to find out what’s going on at the rival publication) and threats to get his staff to try to get an inside lane into the story. It takes investigative reporter Ben Bagdikian’s [Bob Odenkirk] memory of prior contacts and co-workers who may have had access to the studies to make the connections necessary to get the papers into the Post’s hands.
The Nixon administration is understandably (especially due to its well-known paranoia when it came to the press) reticent to allow the continued publication of potential state secrets, and it seeks an injunction first against The Times, and then against The Post. Both papers face legal and political fallout that might ultimately result in the destruction of their papers.
A movie that deals with policy and Supreme Court decisions may seem like a rather dry subject matter, but Spielberg does a great job of delivering a tense and fraught drama. This is only helped by John Williams’ subtle score, one that integrates itself into the background sound of constant typewriter chatter (remember, this is set in the days prior to “keyboarding” and silent word processing).
And while Hanks does an excellent job as Ben Bradlee (a role for which Jason Robards won a Best Supporting Actor award in 1976’s All the President’s Men), the true standout here is, by far, Streep in her role as Post owner Katherine “Kay” Graham. She plays her role in a dichotomous manner – the strong and exceedingly intelligent person with an awareness of the nuance of Washington real-politic, contrasted against the woman trying to act in a clearly male-dominated world, in an especially male-dominated field. She expresses clarity and intelligence in her private moments of reflection and planning (often either with Hanks’ Bradlee, or with Tracy Letts’ Fritz Beebe), but is unable to clearly express herself when faced with more forcefully patriarchal people such as Post board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), losing her ability to talk, and deferring to her surrogates in Beebe and Bradlee. When she ultimately manages to find her voice later in the film, it is truly a moment of triumph.
Other standouts are Sarah Paulson as Bradlee’s long-suffering wife Tony, making sandwiches for the questionably hygienic reporters that show up at her house to go through the papers, and Bob Odenkirk as investigative reporter Bagdikian.
At the beginning of this review, I claimed that this movie captures the moment of our times. What I meant by this is that, in an age when media is constantly being attacked as “false” or “fake”, it is more important than ever to remember that the fourth estate’s real job, in a democracy, is to act as a separate check and balance, as a voice for the people in watching and calling to account the powers that be. There’s a very clear reason that Steven Spielberg, upon reading Liz Hannah’s script, decided that this movie needed to be made now, saying in an interview with USA Today that, “when I read the first draft of the script, this wasn’t something that could wait three years or two years — this was a story I felt we needed to tell today.” This is, truly, a movie for our times.
Steve’s Rating: (8.5 / 10)
The Post is a solid reminder of how very important a free press is in ensuring a free and open society. Fake news my ass. And when you’re done, your homework assignment is to go and watch Alan J. Pakula’s incredible (and award-winning – four Oscars!) movie, All the President’s Men, which covers the Watergate scandal that followed closely on the heels of the Pentagon Papers.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford
Release Date: January 12, 2018
Runtime: 1 hr. 56 mins.
MPAA Rating: PG-13