Something elevates Steven Spielberg’s hastily made, star-studded, period-piece love letter to journalism, making it one of the best movies of the year.
To say that the something is Meryl Streep would sound a bit obvious, I know. “Meryl Streep delivers strong performance” is a take about as hot as a bomb cyclone. But it’s not just Streep’s performance as Kay Graham -- publisher of the Washington Post during a time of tumultuous change at the paper and in the country -- that elevates “The Post.” It’s the writing of the character.
Screenwriters Liz Hannah (whose first feature is “The Post”) and Josh Singer (“Spotlight,” “The West Wing”) have very smartly chosen to make Graham’s internal conflict the primary focus of the film, because it’s truly where the most interesting drama is. We’ve seen plenty of glowing films celebrate the Ben Bradlees of the world of journalism -- fearless news editors who will put it all on the line to get to the heart of the truth of a story.
In “The Post,” Bradlee is played by Tom Hanks, but he is appropriately sidelined by Streep’s Graham, because of course Ben Bradlee would put it all on the line to get a story -- that’s literally his job. Not pursuing a huge story is the bigger risk for a news editor, because big stories are what make careers. It’s Graham -- the newspaper’s publisher, not the journalist -- who truly has something to lose in her decision whether or not to publish explosive material.
The material, in this case, known by history as the Pentagon Papers, was a study about the Vietnam War that, once leaked to journalists and published, revealed years of deception from American presidents to the American public regarding how the war in Vietnam was going. They highlighted systemic lies emanating from the top of the United States government.
But the Washington Post wasn’t even the first paper to publish excerpts of the papers -- that credit goes to the New York Times, which is mostly off-screen in “The Post,” always presented as rivals. That is, until the Nixon administration -- portrayed in the film using documentary audio footage -- obtained a federal court injunction calling upon the Times to cease publication of further reporting of the study. At that point, the journalists at the two competing companies had reason to consider themselves allies.
Which goes back to why focusing on the Graham character is essential to what makes “The Post” work. The point of the film is more nuanced than a simple celebration of information becoming public by intrepid journalists. It’s about the particular struggles of one woman who found herself at an extraordinary crossroad.
The relevant nature of a story about journalists who defied a president who was famous for his animosity toward the free press is surely what made Spielberg hasten to get the story out as quickly as he did -- the first script only started to get passed around Hollywood late 2016 before Spielberg picked it up and assembled the A-list cast to get it to theaters within a year.
But “The Post” shows that the director knows what he’s doing. It moves along with the sophistication and dramatic interest of “Bridge of Spies” while even managing to achieve a level of nuance that Spielberg showed in “Munich.” Spielberg, while a master of visual storytelling and action, is almost never a particularly subtle filmmaker, which makes the nuances of “The Post” all the more delightful.
But there’s still quite a lot of obviousness -- like when Sarah Paulson’s character gets a solitary moment to shine and to shine a blinding light on the message of the film, which otherwise would have been perfectly clear already from Streep’s performance, or when Spielberg’s nostalgia for print media gets a little in-your-face in the many sensual close-ups to typographical machinery and freshly inky paper.
Still, “The Post” delivers a story that is heartily worth telling, and it does it well. I’m glad it was rushed into existence while First Amendment matters are fresh on the minds of the American people. Though, I would imagine they will be for some time still.
Maybe he didn’t need to rush.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Sarah Paulson
Running time: 1 hour, 55 min
Rating: PG-13 for language and brief war violence