Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods, Pat Healy
PG-13 for language and brief war violence
Does film have an obligation to inform as well as entertain? For decades, Hollywood has melded these two purposes into one as it attempts to divert the public while also providing it with the types of historical and sociopolitical content that will keep it informed. Steven Spielberg built his reputation as an entertainer, but The Post marks his most striking political commentary since Schindler’s List.
As Vietnam dragged on, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) took it upon himself to sneak out reams of paper from Pentagon archives detailing a study conducted on the efficacy and longterm viability of the conflict in Vienam. After the New York Times is blocked from publishing further content from the Pentagon Papers, The Washington Post steps in, beginning a showdown between the U.S. government and the press. The resultant ruling helped codify into law the position of a free press and its obligation to hold the government accountable.
Screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer skillfully wade through the minutiae of the decision and the events leading up to it. They focus not on the Supreme Court case, but a Washington Post on the cusp of entering the U.S. Stock Exchange. Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) must weigh the paper’s financial future with the heavy responsibilities of the press.
Streep has seldom been better than as Graham, a cautious woman who must not only navigate the hazardous waters of duty versus profit, but also the politely hostile patriarchal structures of the worlds of business and politics. Streep has delivered myriad mannered performances over the years, each with a surfeit of competence and confidence. As Kay Graham, Streep dials back her forceful and assertive personality and infuses Graham with uncertainty and trepidation. Her dialogue is delivered with the apprehension of a woman unaccustomed to having to stand up to others, unsure of whether what she decides is ultimately right for her family’s legacy or for the people whose employment depends upon her.
Tom Hanks plays her managing editor Ben Bradlee with the surety and conviction he has frequently brought to his roles. It’s a persona that has served him well over the years, blended here with a hard-nosed edge as the incorruptible Bradlee. His certitude helps diminish Kay’s reticence and gives her just the inspiration she needs to make her own decisions without the influence of those who are too cautious.
For all his experience with grand epics and broadly engaging features, Spielberg is often at his best when he lets uncomplicated scenes unfold simply, allowing our emotional investment in the events of the film to wash over us. He is one of the most astute filmmakers working today and while it would be easy to dismiss him as a purveyor of bold entertainment, he’s often at his absolute best when he’s pushing the audience in new directions, both mentally and emotionally. The Post features a number of straightforward segments that feature undercurrents of raw emotional power and that’s one of the reasons the film feels so fresh in spite of its 40-year-old setting.
Political dramas have been a staple of cinema for decades, reaching a pinnacle that began with the likes of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and peaking in the 1970s with films like All the President’s Men, a look at the major Post story that followed the Pentagon Papers. Since then, Hollywood seems to have devoted fewer resources to these types of films, leaving it up to major talents to keep them afloat. Spielberg’s late-career focus on historical documents has made for some thrilling entertainment, but few have been as pressing and important at this juncture in the United States’ history than The Post.
For any student of journalism or newspaper publishing, The Post is also a richly detailed exploration of the subject. Delving not only into the Herculean behind-the-scenes efforts to protect their right to publish, the film also presents numerous fascinating details that firmly establish setting while documenting the myriad duties, responsibilities, and editorial minutiae that go into the producing of a paper of The Post‘s size and reputation.
When almost daily attacks on the press have begun to erode public support of and faith in the institution of journalism, a film like this becomes incredibly important to enshrine into the public consciousness a case where the government’s own malfeasance led to suffering and hurt for many citizens. It was a situation where the press enabled the nation to understand the dangerous precedent set by a government willing to protect itself over its populace by limiting and attacking the very institution that was established to act as a check and balance on political power, to hold the government accountable for its actions. The Post drives home the necessity of such institutions.
“Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.” That was the opening statement of Justice Hugo Black, the man who wrote the majority opinion for the Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. United States. These words hold great philosophical, ethical, and moral power. They confirm to the public that the government in no way should be more important than the governed.
The Post puts forward an important story, one of surprising significance in our current political climate, with deftness, skill, and the utmost respect for the the institution of The Washington Post and all other publications that have succeeded because one newspaper stood up to the government and won.
There are two scenes late in the film whose emotional importance require segregation from my formal review. Both scenes, if not prefaced by a spoiler warning, could ruin certain aspects of the film. Each carries a certain affecting presence that seeing for the first time would be diminished by forewarning. My recommendation is that you see the film first before returning to this section of the review. Any impact they have on you will be lessened if you proceed further.
The first scene is also the last. In All the President’s Men, we are shown the burglary at the Watergate office complex. As Spielberg’s film concludes, we are given a fairly similar version of the events. That scene is the perfect codicil to the film, establishing that the Pentagon Papers were just the beginning of what the Post would eventually uncover. At first, the resonance of the scene made me desirous of a follow-up film from Spielberg on the Watergate scandal. After some reflection, the scene also acts like a segue into that prior film’s story. Either path would be an interesting one, though if it were referencing the Alan J. Pakula political masterpiece, it might have been advisable to reference it.
The second scene is one of quiet power. One of the undercurrents of this story is the struggle of women to compete in male-centered environments. This is referenced subtly at several moments in the film, but two stand out in a significant way. One is where an intern for opposing counsel speaks for a moment with Kay Graham encouraging her and thanking her. The other is the scene I am more specifically referencing. As the New York Times’ lawyers speak to the assembled crowd, Kay, Ben, and others descend the steps of the courthouse through a narrow opening in the throng. Along this route, several women stand, quietly saluting the significance of the achievement Kay Graham has just made. It’s a simple, elegant segment that resonates long after the film is over.
Probables: Picture, Director, Actress (Meryl Streep), Actor (Tom Hanks), Original Screenplay, Film Editing
Potentials: Original Score, Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design
Unlikelies: Makeup & Hairstyling
December 6, 2017