Steven Spielberg signed on to direct “The Post” (a film about the immediate events leading up to the publishing of the Pentagon Papers by the Washington Post) in March of this year. He read the script and concluded that this story needed to be told immediately. And, well, he’s right.
With news organizations shutting down around the country (due to shrinking revenue) and the Trump administration continuing to wage war on honest journalism, “The Post” is the most urgent film of the year. It’s a polished, well-acted picture about the first amendment being threatened as well as a celebration of the power and value of the press in a democratic society.
The film’s opening is swift and thrilling. The highly classified Pentagon papers are stolen, under ominous lighting, by Military analyst Daniel Elsberg (Matthew Rhys). Elsberg, along with several others proceed to scan and copy every page and drop excerpts off at the newsrooms of The Post and their rival The New York Times. When The White House hinders The Times from publishing excerpts of the documents, Post editor Ben Bradlee (crotchety Tom Hanks, chewing scenery, doing his best Jason Robards impression) and his staff are given a major opportunity. However, it’s up to owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) to make the final decision on whether to publish the documents.
Beyond urgency, the main reason to see “The Post” is Streep’s luminous performance. Her Kay is eloquent, careful and modest. Her graceful self-assuredness makes her the MVP of every scene she’s in. Kay is quiet but never passive; she is after all a woman in a powerful position surrounded by old white men that constantly undermine her and want to see her fail. When Post board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) patronizes her leadership in the comfort of three other men, Kay emerges from another room and tells him off with measured confidence. The scenes in which she has to fight for her place and her voice to be heard are poignant and rousing. At the same time, we see Kay at her most vulnerable and insecure-- when she struggles to keep her elegant composure and is tempted to give into the pressure closing in on her.
Considering that Kay Graham was left out of “All the Presidents Men,” (about The Post’s subsequent investigation of the Watergate scandal) her perspective and presence here is crucial. The Post may never have published The Pentagon Papers without her fearless leadership and Spielberg places her front and center.
Otherwise, “The Post” is a tight, sturdy Hollywood product. The pacing is near perfect. Given the large cast of characters and chain of events, these might be the fastest, fat free hundred and fifty-five minutes you’ll ever sit through. The dialogue exchanges are slick and precise, accompanied by lots of dramatic walking. “All the Presidents Men” focused solely on work in the newsroom, with no space for social lives. In “The Post,” personal and professional lives are in constant conflict. The characters private lives are frequently interrupted, which becomes a running joke throughout. Kay has three different formal parties interrupted by urgent matters. Spielberg depicts all of this action in a restrained yet dynamic manner; Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is fluid and immersive. The camera frantically tracks through the busy offices of The Post and gently glides around populated news desks and dinner tables, capturing heated debates and editorial meetings. It’s all very absorbing to watch, at least for a while.
The film can’t help but feel a little mechanical and stale in the third act. “All the Presidents Men” was also a timely celebration of journalism and the first amendment but it showed the journalistic process in action, a process that naturally lends itself to the procedural film genre. Director Alan J Pakula immersed us in the thrilling details and day-to-day grind of a journalistic investigation: interviewing subjects, tracking down sources, scouring records for hours upon end and meeting print deadlines.
In “The Post,” the drama ultimately hinges more on a decision than an investigation: should the paper publish these documents or not? It’s a monumental decision for sure but Spielberg handles it (and the remainder of the film) with heavy hands. The script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer gets increasingly ham-fisted and self-congratulatory. The slick conversations between characters in the beginning gradually become wooden and preachy speeches about the importance of the first amendment. The movie repeatedly taps you on the shoulder, reminding you just how important and relevant the story being told is. We get it.
The points that Spielberg bludgeons you with are important but the heavy handedness gets to be tedious and the finale is underwhelming as a result. “The Post” is an impressive, relevant movie that should be seen but it’s not a great movie.