by Michael Henley
For a while now, movie by movie, Steven Spielberg has been re-establishing himself as not just the premiere popcorn maker of the movie business, but also one of its prime moral consciences. Not that we’d expect anything less from the man who once turned in Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List within the space of a year. And certainly there’s no shortage these days of well-intentioned pictures—god ones, even–that sincerely examine social issues. But there’s something to be said for Spielberg, perhaps one of the most successful and accessible filmmakers who ever lived, using that powerful influence to recently make such resonant and meaningful statements.
The Post is one of those. By all rights, it’s a small and simple newspaper procedural, filmed on the heels of Spielberg’s latest dip into blockbuster waters (the sfx-driven Ready Player One, which opens later this year). But you’d never tell that based on the urgency and skill with which this story is told. Credit must go all around: first to co-screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (the latter of which wrote Spotlight), then to then primary cast (Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep) and the murderer’s row of supporting talent, but then also to Spielberg, who, let me be precise in my terminology…directs the hell out of this thing.
And also we should credit history, for supplying such an engrossing story to hang a movie on. In form, The Post functions as a kind of old-fashioned absorbing thriller–the exact same kind, it should be said, that the 70’s blockbuster era that Spielberg helped birth rather hastily ushered out. A sort-of prequel, in a way, to All the President’s Men, The Post tells the story of the small-scale Washington newspaper and the wrangling it had to do in order to publish the secrets of the leaked Pentagon papers, which comprised over 4,000 pages in reports that—among other things—exposed the government’s callous indifference to the fact that the Vietnam war was predicted to be a failure decades prior.
This is crucial, hard-hitting information that the public arguably needs to know. But for the movie’s purposes, the Pentagon papers are a mere McGuffin in order to ponder the thorny question encircling them. Does the government have the right to threaten those who would expose unflattering and top secret facts, first amendment be damned? Does a public institution have a duty to implicitly ignore that threat? To say this material is as relevant as ever is as obvious as to say that water is wet, but I hope you’ll allow it.
If All the President’s Men was about the shoe leather of building a case against a corrupt president, then The Post functions more as a business thriller with the scent of that corruption hanging in the air. The paper’s editor, Bed Bradlee (played so memorably by Jason Robards in ATPM) is here, played now by Tom Hanks with a Bostonian accent and a perma-scowl. But the central figure is Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the publisher and owner of the Washington Post. She inherited the paper from her father, and you can hear the light sneer whenever someone brings that up. During meetings as the company is about to go public, she stammers over her notes while the board members eye her like a kid at the adult table. Never mind that she’s as smart and savvy as any Washington insider; she’s a woman, and that’s enough to cause doubt.
The interception of the Pentagon Papers forms a crucible for Katherine, in a narrative semi-invented for the movie but has a waft of truth to it. Going public is Katherine’s way to make the struggling paper solvent, but any boat-rocking, and the skittish investors might take their legally-provided option to flee. There are secrets within the documents, too, that paint a bad picture of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who Katherine is friendly with. And then there’s the White House to consider, as it sends an injuction to the New York Times (which first published some of the papers), and the stakes seem to grow as the staff of the Post weigh their civic responsibility to publish the story anyway: unemployment, betraying lifelong friendships, financial ruin, perhaps even imprisonment.
This is a good, tight story, and Spielberg knows it and tells it well. He orchestrates the camerawork with the energy and skill of any 70’s filmmaker. His work is balletic in its control and intricacy, but all in the service of a character-driven and tension-filled narrative. It never feels showy. He emphasizes architecture and set details, emphasizing the offices and homes as twisty, labyrinthine passages, and even the outdoor bank of phones where shadowy contacts are called feel ominous. But note the precision in which Spielberg mines some scenes for subtle, finely-tuned comic beats, like the intern who can’t get a word in edgewise, or the way Spielberg tracks the progress of a very long day at Bradlee’s house by threading it through a funny running gag.
But his primary collaborators here, as you would expect, are his cast. Streep hasn’t been quite this good in a long while. She brilliantly dramatizes Graham’s indecision here as a moral quagmire rather than paralysis (and Janusz Kaminski’s camera is loving in its attention to what she’s doing with her face). But then there’s the steamer trunk full of brass that is the supporting cast, which includes not just the aforementioned Greenwood but also the likes of Allison Brie, Carrie Coon, David Cross, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Jesse Plemons, Matthew Rhys, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bradley Whitford, a bit from Zach Woods and even the great Sarah Paulson (playing Mrs. Bradlee, yes, but she gets a killer monologue that moves her far past “worried wife in a biopic”). Spielberg’s direction and the script are so generous here that every single actor named is given a specific character to play, even if it’s just a brief aside.
There are perhaps some tiny missteps. A closing sequence at the Supreme Court is Spielberg in high-gear Capra mode, and there’s a moment towards the end of it (involving a descent of the capitol hill steps) that pours it on perhaps a little thick. And the final scene, involving a Watergate-burglary cameo, might be take-it-or-leave-it the way it anticipates future events like a supervillain from the blockbuster era (although I chuckled at the audacious, arch tone of it all). But The Post is a movie made with such joy and sincerity that it transcends cynical, Oscar-season sneers. To see it is to hear a clarion call, from one of our preeminent storytellers, for transparency and integrity. It argues in favor of speaking truth to power, for exposing corruption, and extolling the virtues of an honestly-informed republic. Those are things we really really need to hear right now. But here’s the bonus: even without those things, The Post would still be one of the best movies of the year.