OnScreen Review: "The Post"

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Steven Spielberg is a director who normally operates in two types of modes; alternating projects between big blockbusters and serious filmmaking with awards in mind. His latest, The Post, makes no qualms about what kind of film it wants to be, landing firmly with both feet in the latter camp. Spielberg has never been shy about making films with a message, but they rarely have been so deliberate in their intent to speak to the relevant news of the present.

With a modern news cycle where the freedom of the press is routinely undermined by the Orange Menace in the White House who blasts any negative press toward him as “fake news”, The Post feels like the first salvo of many that are about to come out of Hollywood over the next four years about the importance of a free and independent press. Spielberg takes the audience back to another time the freedom of the press was under assault from the executive branch of government: the Nixon administration.

Everyone knows about Watergate and the scandal that brought down Nixon, but a few years before that, a very important moment in American history occurred involving the Washington Post and the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed twenty years of lies by the U.S. government about the country’s involvement in Vietnam dating all the way back to Truman, and the White House’s attempts to prevent that from happening.

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep headline an incredible cast in retelling this story. Hanks has the almost thankless job of portraying Ben Bradlee, the editor in chief of the Washington Post; Bradlee was already famously portrayed in All the President’s Men by legendary actor Jason Robards, who won an Oscar for his performance. Hanks is mostly up to the task, in full command of his newsroom and trying to push his writers to be more than just a local newspaper and compete on the level of the New York Times.

Streep is equally important as Katherine Graham, the owner of the Washington Post. Having assumed ownership of the newspaper in the wake of her husband’s suicide, Kay, as she is known, is struggling to find her voice as owner of the paper. She is on the verge of taking the company public and has also enjoyed the social scene of DC for many years, rubbing elbows with many politicians and leaders, including Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who factors prominently into the Pentagon Papers. She is put into the unfathomable position of having to decide whether to go forward with publishing these highly classified documents and the ramifications of doing so: alienating long-time friends, potentially scuttling the public offering of the company, and the threat of treason if the White House.

Streep, of course, gives an exceptional performance as a woman who eventually comes into her own in the business, finding her voice in the boardroom and in the newsroom. Toward the end of the film, when things have escalated to the point where the White House and The Post (along with the New York Times) are arguing before the Supreme Court, there is a terrific moment when they leave the court and the face of the Times makes a statement to the gathered press on the steps of the highest court in the land. Kay opts to step off to the side and lead her people quietly to exit off to the side away from the hoopla. As she descends the stairs, she passes by woman after woman all the way down who just watch her leave. It’s not showy, they’re not cheering her, but the message is anything but subtle and it is totally effective.

Streep and Hanks anchor the film, but the ensemble that surrounds them all get moments to shine as well. Bob Odenkirk, Carrie Coon, David Cross are just some of the names that populate the newsroom; Tracy Letts and Bradley Whitford square off in several board room scenes involving Kay and the business of the newspaper; and Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson, Jesse Plemons, and Matthew Rhys gets important minor roles and are given moments to shine. Michael Stuhlbarg, who had quite a 2017, portrays Abe Rosenthal, the editor of the New York Times.

The film intercuts several instances of recordings from Richard Nixon talking on the phone to various administration officials about the Washington Post and the New York Times. These highlight the stakes of the film, with the newspaper fighting the highest power in the country. It leads to several mighty fine speeches about the importance of the freedom of the press and the need for solidarity among the press. The message in 2017 cannot be any less clear. But it also works as a historical drama on its own because of these stakes. This is heightened by the best section of the film when Bradlee invites his reporters over to his house to pour over the Pentagon Papers after they finally get possession of them and all levels of the newspaper weigh the pros and cons of whether to publish them with a print deadline looming over all of it.

My only one major complaint with the film is that Spielberg needlessly tacks on two minutes of story that the film doesn’t need. A wry, winking conversation between Streep and Hanks dovetails right into a scene that basically sets the movie up as a prequel to All The President’s Men. It’s unnecessary and sticks out like a sore thumb.

There is no other way to see The Post as a call to action for the modern-day press and an attempt to draw clear, strong parallels to today’s White House that routinely deals in obfuscation. Spielberg makes it clear as day that solidarity is a vital component of the freedom of the press in standing up to power. It also calls out the cozy relationships that reporters and politicians can have inside the Washington bubble and how good journalism can run counter to rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful. Given that journey of this film from creation to completion took barely over a year (screenplay rights were not even won until October 2016), this is the first notable, overtly anti-Trump film to come out of Hollywood. I’m reminded of the rash of films that were made in reaction to President Bush and the Iraq War. Most of those films were forgettable (no one is talking about Lions for Lambs or Rendition), though there were a few notables (The Hurt Locker, The Messenger). If The Post is any indication of where we may be headed in the next few years, the quality of output may be far better than it was in the 2000s.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars