The Post, a Steven Spielberg-directed drama about the Washington Post’s critical role in discriminating the notorious Pentagon Papers, has Very Important Movie Streep written all over it. A newspaper procedural starring awards giants Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, lit to resemble an Oscar winner by Janusz Kaminski and following a script from first-timer Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate, Spotlight) that touts the importance of its subject at every turn (sometimes in painfully obvious soliloquy), The Post is part important meditation on the unimpeachable import of the First Amendment, part desperate plea for Award’s attention and part Spielberg doing his Dramatic Spielberg thing.
The cast is ludicrously stacked – Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods, Pat Healy…(and that’s before you factor in Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep) each player receiving just enough limelight to justify their being there (as if anyone trying to shape up their career would turn down a spot in a Spielberg joint). But unlike a movie like Spotlight, which The Post emulates in both form and function, this isn’t really an ensemble piece, the highlight reel of supporting cast very much playing second fiddle to Hanks and Streep.
When we first meet her, Streep’s Kay Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, is a bit of a spineless socialite, more interested in hobnobbing potent politicians and other members of high society than publishing hard-hiring news. In a showy monologue (The Post has one too many monologues where characters reveal their motivations in a very stagey fashion), Kay unveils that she’s never really believed in herself because society never really believed in her. As a woman, it was her place to follow, never to lead. The board questions her judgement and leadership prowess as the paper prepares to go public right in the middle of the biggest shakeup in news media history, one that would pull the curtain back on four generations of presidential cover-up regarding U.S. efforts in Vietnam.
Kay finds herself stuck between two opposing ideas – those embodied by her financially-minded board and those of her First Amendment touting editor-in-chief Ben Bradley (Hanks). When the U.S. Government bars The New York Times with a legal injunction from further publishing reports about the losing war effort in Vietnam and critical government research into the long-term impracticality of winning said war, it falls upon the Washington Post to discriminate the truth. Ben Bradley, a no-nonsense, hard-nosed leader, stands firmly in the corner that the American public deserve to know the truth but more importantly, he wants to be the guy with his finger on the trigger. The board has very much the opposite frame of mind, concerned that publishing could mean the paper’s very undoing and the deterioration of brand confidence. Here, Kay is left to find her voice and make a decision that will redefine the role of the press moving on.
We live in a time where the president of the United States is known for defaming the news on a near daily basis. “Fake news” has become his battle cry, one he wields whenever an unflattering report rears its frequent head. The Post returns us to a time when war first raged between press and president, showcasing the actions of a few brave men and women willing to stand up and fight, risking everything in the process. The Post captures the zeitgeist of a Trump presidency dutifully, drawing critical parallels between his and Nixon’s war on the press, perhaps to remind us that in times of troubled leadership, it is never more important for the press to stay the course. Perhaps to assure viewers that our nation has made it through misguided leadership before. Regardless, The Post serves an important function in telling a historical parable with modern day application. It’s worth noting however that in any other year, with any other administration, that The Post would probably be regarded as a capable, if relatively minor, newsroom drama. It thrives off its timeliness, living and dying by the disturbing parallels to today, drawing into question its long term potency.
Hannah and Singer’s script does a fine job of defining the changing media landscape in a time of mounting distrust between the fourth estate and government. The breakdown of honest and open communication between the press and U.S. leaders is hard for many to swallow, particularly Kay, who has many friends on “the other side”. She must come to terms with the fact that she, alongside the American people, has been systematically lied to about the nature of the Vietnam War. That it was a losing war from the start, an investment of lives and lies that eventually came down to wholesaling death to keep the government from losing face. The sting of that hard reality is underscored by the fact that Kay sent her own son off to fight in the thick of the Vietnamese jungle.
The Post also succeeds in telling the story of the first female newspaper publisher, examining Kay’s transformation from a meek figurehead to a feared and morally sturdy fore(wo)man. On the other hand, The Post is almost too deferential to its subject, functioning as almost an origin story and doting love letter for The Washington Post. Detailing how it went from a small time local rag to an internationally renown heavy-hitter, The Post’s glorification of this paper seems almost designed to sell newspaper subscriptions. Sometimes Spielberg’s creations do too much hand-holding and that is certainly the case here.
Sure, The Post is a bit high on its own supply, carrying with it an air of self-importance and self-congratulatory momentousness but that should be expected. Hanks and Streep are both rock solid, if not quite spectacular enough to be major award’s contenders from where I’m sitting, and Spielberg directs with clear-eyed passion, his personal investment in telling this story undeniably evident (Spielberg saw the film through in a matter of months on an uber tight timeline). But in the end, The Post tells an important and timely story in a well-done but fairly routine, if never trivial, manner. It’s a respectful and respectable feature if one that inspires little more than passing admiration and hardly breaks any new ground in terms of its telling.
CONCLUSION: ‘The Post’ tells a well-timed story about the importance of the free press, has a remarkably loaded cast led by Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep and is defined by sharp production elements from stem to stern. Still, it feels like a fairly rote procedural, one with few surprises up its sleeve, and one we’ve seen better versions of just in the past few years.