Another great tribute to the power of journalism, The Post is a very timely, tightly made and engrossing Steven Spielberg movie with quite different (though no less powerful) performances from Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep.
In the early 1970s, CIA analyst Dan Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) becomes disillusioned with government cover ups regarding the real state of the Vietnam War. He copies government reports into the conflict, and passes them to the New York Times, which publishes incendiary stories before incurring President Nixon’s wrath. It falls to Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), his editorial team and the paper’s new publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) to pick up the story, amidst dual worries of governmental pressures and financial difficulties for the news outlet.
That plot synopsis may not make this film sound stirring or exciting to most, but it’s about as timely a story as you could have right now. While making another movie, Spielberg came across the snappy, engrossing script from Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, and actually put his other film on hold to make this.
The parallels to the USA of today are striking: governmental forces working against the free press, and journalists and editors decried for publishing true stories that are in the public interest, at the expense of a devious administration. This means that the true story of the US press’ struggles with Nixon and Vietnam (later to come to a culmination with the Watergate scandal) offers a unique chance to celebrate the power of the free (and noble) press, while reminding of previous battles between governments and papers.
Hannah and Singer’s script, coupled with Spielberg’s steady hand and Janusz Kamiński’s muted, period styling, effortlessly take us back to the 1970s, and even though you will see the culmination coming, it is to their united credit that it remains engrossing throughout, especially given the risks all faced in simply sticking to the US right to a free press. John William’s understated but edgy score uses electronic sounds and guitars for a really different vibe to his usual offerings, ratcheting up the urgency whether it be in a pressroom, an office or the Supreme Court.
To be quite honest, I can see that this film won’t set the world alight for many – it’s interesting and it grips you from the start, but a lot of people will find it boring or a little staid. However, for me, Spielberg at this level is still far better than most directors at their best, and its slower passages allow for a more considered, character-based focus inbetween passages of tension or intrigue.
Hanks is definitely the draw here, simply because we have a variation on his usual protagonist performance. The actor portrays Bradlee’s abrasive editor as a man driven by his calling and his job, whether or not it pisses off his new boss or the President of the United States. In that sense it’s a great change of pace, as Hanks plays a man both arrogant and self sure, rather than conflicted or concerned.
He plays off against a quite different Meryl Streep, who is probably only operating at about third gear but who brings gravitas and a steely, blossoming resolve to Katharine Graham. The widow inherits her husband’s newspaper, and finds herself thrust into a man’s world where money and influence can only protect her so much. She also has to deal with Bradlee’s headstrong, “I know best” mentality, which Hanks deftly tones down as he becomes more comfortable with Graham’s growing confidence.
You find yourself rooting for this woman despite the fact she has friends in all the high places (though as the film points out, Graham and Bradlee’s links to previous presidents is both a blessing and a curse for what both seek to achieve). Streep begins to shine when Graham’s brittle confidence starts to harden later on, and her work with Hanks is understated but nonetheless engrossing (it’s the first time they’ve ever appeared together onscreen).
The Post’s editorial staff includes David Cross (Tobias Funke in Arrested Development) and Bob Odenkirk (Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad), both men (also sketch show partners) respectively painting comedic and driven investigative journalists. Other notable appearances include a nervy Bruce Greenwood as Secretary of Defence Bob McNamara, whose concerns about his role in the reports conflicts with his close friendship with Graham.
Bradley Whitford essentially twirls an evil moustache as a misogynist board member, while Tracy Letts evokes a cool calm as Katherine’s trusted advisor and chairman. Matthew Rhys’ short appearance as the whistleblower is notable for the actor’s quiet ability to depict a concerned man who’s seen too much and knows too much, and who wants to make a difference for the men who’ve died in the war.
Other women in the cast are given slightly short shrift, including Carrie Coon’s bolshy newsroom staffer, Sarah Paulson as Bradlee’s wife and Alison Brie as Graham’s daughter. However, they are given enough time onscreen to make an impact, both Paulson and Brie given scenes where they impress upon the main characters a perspective, in true Spielbergian style.
I enjoyed this film, though I would being as it celebrates the importance of journalism (much like Spotlight)! It’s not going to win many awards, but it’s still better than average Spielberg, and gives us Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep performances that are more memorable for being a little more against type.
And more to the point, it comes at a time where we should remember how important journalism can be in terms of holding the powerful to account.