Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” is a morality tale tackling media ethics at the height of the Nixon administration. It is also Spielberg, America’s seminal filmmaker, atboth his most effortless and most preachy.
“The Post” focuses on the struggle of publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) to take the reins of her family’s company in the wake of her husband’s death, including floating the paper on the stock market. This challenge is heightened when Graham and new editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) must wrestle with the ethical and moral obligations of publishing inflammatory information contained in the Pentagon Papers detailing four administrations’ awareness of the enduring failure of the Vietnam War.
The Nixon administration attempts to gag publications, including the New York Times, for leaking ‘state secrets.’ This film precedes Watergate – and all of the events in Alan J. Pakula’s masterpiece “All the President’s Men” – and explores how the publication established itself as one of the country’s (and consequently the world’s) most fearless and trusted publications.
Spielberg is a peerless American filmmaker. He’s tackled different genres, time periods and dramatic retellings of historical events before, and yet there’s something about the dual purpose of “The Post” that’s dissatisfying.
Screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (writer of a thread of screen stories about journalism such as “Spotlight,” “The Fifth Estate,” and “The West Wing”) use the cataclysmic event in American identity, the ‘Watergate’ period, as a lens to view the increasing volatility and hostility of our contemporary political climate and the propagandistic ‘fake news’ ethos that’s permeated the zeitgeist. Hannah and Singer are also posing a revisionist view of Kay Graham (Streep), a lone female publisher negotiating her way into a hostile ‘boys club.’
When “The Post” is on song the script is taut, it is formally superb and the performers – especially Streep, Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Jessie Mueller and Tracy Letts – are terrific. Streep is so at one with silence at this stage of her career, that occasionally dialogue can interrupt your fascination with her ability to emotionally inhabit different characters.
Streep’s best in the moments that one shouldn’t be paying attention to her performance. Kay (Streep) simply moving along from one room in a dinner party to another with daughter Lally Graham (Allison Brie) is able to convey their deep connection in a matter of seconds. Her interplay with confidant Fritz Beebe (Letts) is a wonderful showcase of such an assured performer playing someone yearning for cues on how to navigate her newly inherited position.
For Hanks’ Bradlee, the scene of the film is not corralling journalists around stories, it one of personal epiphany. Bradlee reflects on a friendship with President Kennedy, and begins to outwardly wonder if he’d played a part in a series of administrations not being held accountable for their actions. Does being a journalist preclude you from relationships to those people who assume power? “The Post” provides an answer of sorts, but does allow for a refreshing sense of ambiguity. It’s in these quiet moments of reflection that characters in the “The Post” are at their most relatable.
Spielberg has a mastery of establishing a space and then letting the camerawork compliment wave after wave of changing emotions for his characters. There are some beautifully constructed scenes with Ben Bagdikian (Odenkirk) at a pay phone. At the beginning of the scene, Bagdikian is in control, the camera shoots from his feet playing the character in the most commanding position in the frame. The background, level after level of concrete structures, empty parking garages and underpopulated roads starts to mutate throughout the scene and throughout the film.
What begins as a reassuring isolated space begins to resemble towering prison walls, the camera shifts and looks down on Bagdikian, like the audience is a guard in a tower monitoring the time spent talking. It’s not exclusive to these scenes, large exchanges with a chorus of argumentative bantering flows with subtle precision.
Conversely, there are scenes that make it so frustratingly clear that Spielberg, and writers Hannah and Singer are framing Graham (Streep) as a trailblazing feminist icon that they hit you like Indiana Jones smashing through the marble floors of a church in Venice. Bradlee’s wife Tony (the under-utilised Sarah Paulson) is lumbered with the task of explaining to the oblivious Bradlee that being a woman trying to break into the male dominated arena of business and media in the 70s is hard – insert facepalm here.
In a pivotal moment in the film, that I won’t spoil because it’s most definitely taking some serious dramatic license with history, Streep walks past a chorus of tactically multi racial women who are admiring her like a mob of revellers admiring royalty. The distinct lack of subtlety is far more grating because the other facets of the story are executed with such care.
Spielberg’s latest projects “Lincoln,” “Bridge of Spies” and “The Post” feel they’re operating in a similar thematic arc. “Lincoln” was appraising a sanctified political figure in a more candid context to great effect. “Bridge of Spies” was able to capture the gathering dissatisfaction with ineffectual political structures and the frustrating over-simplification phenomenon occurring in the political discourse. “Spies” yearned for the art of diplomacy, even in the most trying and volatile times. It’s an all too “real” contrast to the terrifying dick measuring contests that the President of the United States is conducting on Twitter as we speak.
“The Post” is a missile. It’s hoping for a direct hit for the defence and defiance of journalistic responsibility to serve the governed, and to create a voice for feminist pioneers in an intellectual ecosystem that seems to be in retrograde. The message was perhaps better served in a whisper, instead of with a megaphone.