It’s arguable as to whether or not Steven Spielberg is the best living director, but he is indisputably the most successful. It’s hard to imagine a director who’s had a greater influence on film history, popular culture, or the very structure of Hollywood, excepting perhaps Walt Disney. While not all of Spielberg’s films are perfect, he has always had a remarkable knack for making nearly any topic entertaining and cinematic – a skill he demonstrates yet again with The Post, as a dry, wordy, and complicated real life story about journalists in the 1970s is turned into a tense and exceptionally relevant summer release.
The Post is centred around the publication of the Pentagon Papers, confidential documents concerning the role of the US Government in the Vietnam War, and the conflict between the media and the Presidency that emerged as a result. Spielberg’s favourite leading man Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post, who is determined to continue reporting on the papers even after the New York Times has been served a court injunction preventing them from further publication. Bradlee’s determination puts him in opposition with Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), who has inherited ownership of the Post from her husband after his suicide, and is hesitant to allow the story due to the damage it could do to both the value of the paper and her own relationships with members of Nixon’s administration. It’s incredible to think that Streep had never worked with Spielberg or Hanks to this degree before, as the three A-listers seem like such a natural combination and are all on top-form here. Refreshingly, the two leads seem to invert the roles they most commonly play. The famously affable Hanks brings a brashness and bull-headed determination as Bradlee, and Steep brings a nervous vulnerability to the out-of-her-depth Graham that’s a far cry from her more forceful depictions of figures like Margaret Thatcher or Miranda Priestly (even if she is too versatile an actress to ever truly be typecast). As would be expected with such a prestigious film the entire supporting cast is filled with famous faces, from Bob Odenkirk, Alison Brie, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Sarah Paulson, and for those of us who are too young to remember this moment in American history it can be overwhelming to keep up with all the characters and names at first. Once the main story picks up, though, Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay keeps things fairly focused to the main editorial staff, simplifying the story to just a few central figures who have to decide whether or not to publish.
Spielberg has never been a subtle director, and there’s no question that this is a film firmly on the side of journalistic freedom. Characters repeat their belief that the press exists to challenge the government so often that the only way Spielberg’s intended message could have been clearer is if Bradlee slipped up and referred to ‘Nixon’ as ‘Trump’ in a scene. Yet just because a message is obvious doesn’t mean it’s ineffective, as The Post demonstrates how relevant the lessons from decades ago still are today. At times The Post feels like a spiritual successor to 1976’s All the President’s Men, with the former ending right where the latter takes off, but while one film was made only two years after Nixon’s resignation the other is released one year into the Presidency of a man with his own reasons to combat the media. It exemplifies how tuned in Spielberg is to the zeitgeist, and how the entire purpose of making historical pictures is to encourage the audience to question whether or not anything has actually changed.
The Post tells an important story, and Spielberg knows it. There are a few too many grand speeches, even if they are excellently delivered from the faultless cast, and John William’s grandiose soundtrack threatens to overpower the performances at times. Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kamiński has the camera rushing through the frantic offices of the Washington Post and up close to the printers, so we feel the impact of each word being pressed onto the paper and see how much work it took to get them there. It borders on being too much, but when the history on display in The Post feels so familiar to current events it’s hard to not see the need for a film like this.