The Post a timely tale of power of the press
The timing couldn’t be better for the release of Steven Spielberg’s The Post, and the director is well-aware of its importance. The script by first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah crossed the filmmaker’s desk in early 2017 and went into production in May. A sprint to get the film released by the end of the year ensued in order for it to qualify for this year’s Oscars, but more importantly, to serve as a reminder of the power of the press as a reliable bastion of truth. There is a lacerating broadside regarding the current state of media mistrust, a reminder that freedom of the press is more important than ever in this era of “fake news.”
Curiously, Spielberg initially takes his time, as the film gets off to a rather slow start. Granted, a great deal of background must be covered before the meat of the matter takes center stage. With Spielberg at the helm, Meryl Streep as Washington Post owner Kay Graham, and Tom Hanks as the paper’s lead editor, Ben Bradlee, we know we’re in good hands, and their past work earns them the right to ask for a bit of patience on the viewer’s part. It pays off in the end.
Having seen government advisor Daniel Ellsburg (Matthew Rhys) leak the Pentagon Papers – a study of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam from 1945–1967, commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara – to the New York Times, and seeing their efforts to publish them in their entirety stymied by a cease and desist order from the Justice Department, the movie arrives at its thematic center.
Convincing his old colleague Ellsburg to give over the papers to him, Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) plops them in Bradlee’s lap and the fireworks begin.
While his instinct is to publish the documents, the fact that he and his boss may go to jail and the Post may cease publication in the process is a real possibility. Graham is obviously hesitant to follow his lead as her financial advisors are warning her against it, fearing that potential new investors will be scared off; the fear of staining her father’s legacy preys on her mind (he began the paper), giving it to her husband before taking control herself after his suicide.
Spielberg’s best instinct kicks in once the question of whether to publish or not becomes the focus. Few are better than he as far as moving the camera to inject energy into a common conversation, while the rapid pacing of these moments between the actors conveys the sense of urgency and importance of the matter at hand. As lawyers, financiers, family members and government employees weigh in on what Graham should do, Spielberg has effectively heightened interest in the matter so that it makes the publisher’s final decision have the impact it deserves.
Hanks does a good job here, though there are times when you catch him giving us a Perry White imitation rather than a newspaper man that bleeds ink. Odenkirk makes the most of his moments, standing out amidst a strong supporting cast that includes Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson, David Cross, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Bradley Whitford and Carrie Coon. They all bring their A game, but as is often the case in any film she’s in, this is Streep’s show. It’s an old saw to say that she’s brilliant, so I won’t bother here. However, she makes us feel Graham’s anguish, and her ability to show us this woman’s gradual transformation that leads to her deciding to publish is remarkable.
In addition to the slow start, the film suffers from Spielberg’s trademark heavy-handed approach during its third act. Not trusting that the story itself has enough of a dramatic impact, the director errs in trying to so obviously manipulate the viewer. Still, the power of this tale and the timing of its release makes The Post necessary viewing.