“Is anybody tired of reading the news instead of reporting it?”
Lifting off on the gusting winds of multiple cultural zeitgeists – of the past and of the immediate present – The Post is the rare kind of movie that so clearly dwells in one of America’s countless troubling epochs while also maintaining a timeless finish. Whether or not you care to admit it, our 45th President has had a terrible go of things (almost/somehow entirely of his own doing) and what’s so disconcerting and troubling about The Post is that we’re watching history repeat itself in real-time, assuring us that the freedom of the press is a far greater ideal to hold dear than it is to value Nixon’s Watergate era paranoia and unbridled government security. I predict that this movie will age well, that its occasional sour notes will sharpen over time, that its devoted depiction of 1970’s America will provide an image to a future outside its reach. Blind eyes and empty hearts allow history to repeat the mistakes of the past. The Post is a patient, stubborn, welcome wake-up call to action and a battle cry against the largely baseless “fake news” movement swirling around the airwaves.
Quite appropriately, screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer don’t bury a good lead for too long. Introducing us to the impossibility of victory in Vietnam, segueing into the release of secured documents about the plausibility of this war, pushing towards The New York Times being barred from further coverage by the White House. The film is a bit labored to start and too emotionally distant, setting up situational hearsay to develop more integral plot lines later on. By comparison, the first 15 minutes or so in this script is the muck of exposition through which this story has to be dragged so that the pearl in the oyster can be found. And boy is it a big one.
There are dual figureheads serving as the two turbines keeping this story aloft. There’s Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the inheritor of The Washington Post after her late husband took his own life. It’s her first job of any kind and the woman is left to spin plates on a unicycle, juggling a balancing act of nose to the grindstone work ethics and pointless parlor room talk at swanky dinner parties. We also have Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the paper’s head editor. Ben knows the politics of the newsroom better than most – if not all – politicians know real politics. When he sends a baby-faced intern up to New York with the goal of digging up hidden intel, he chides in a last remark that he’ll need the young man’s transit receipts. Humor of this sort helps to humanize the entire endeavor. Eventually, the film’s real drama drums up a solid timber and a thumping heartbeat when the Pentagon Papers come across their desks. Should they fear personal repercussions for outing the government? Or should they fear the fate of the American people if they remain silently complicit? In retrospect, The Post makes this answer look quite easy, and yet I can only imagine myself in their shoes, biting my nails down to a bloodied cuticle.
Most of the movie takes place indoors in rooms so full of smoke that they could’ve included a surgeon’s general warning on the poster, fueled by stale pots of coffee and overpriced lemonade stands, too driven to relax for some water cooler chit-chat. The picture itself has a look unique to DP Janusz Kaminski’s recent historical collaborations with Spielberg as well. Cameras move like ghosts, tracing and tracking, the changing upward and downward angles shift the power dynamics of what would normally be routine dialogue exchanges. And once again, Kaminski lights the entire film to death, yet unlike most of his dramatic work since The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, the effect brings life to the interiors of the newsroom and its co-host spaces. What appeared downright gaudy in Bridge of Spies actually adds value here, literally helping to shine a light on the faces of the crowd that so often go overlooked. Bridge of Spies is personal in its scope and required more intimacy, whereas The Post’s wide-ranging cast requires a floodlight. Kaminski’s style suits the latter far better than the former.
In the same way that Frank Capra’s The Philadelphia Story allowed the legendary director to collaborate with the inimitable Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart, The Post is a collection of talents who had yet to work together, and whose joint experience allows the effort to feel pragmatic, at times even seamless. I loved Streep here because she’s so thoroughly unpredictable. She commands the screen like a pitcher in total control, dusting the plate with off-speed pitches when we expect fastballs and vice versa. Meanwhile, Hanks embodies a caustic man in charge with his usual fatherly oversight; he condemns the bad and condones the necessary. And then there’s Spielberg, a veteran filmmaker in flux, bouncing back and forth between biopic dramas and outrageous CGI filled family adventures. Spielberg’s films tend to be about truth – the discovery of and the reckoning with – in all of its makes and sizes. In one particular scene, as Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) sits typing away at his desk after breaking the big story, the room literally shakes. It’s the printers below him, literally signalling and introducing a seismic movement that will forever change the country. For all of its early faults, you can sense The Post’s importance not because it gives itself a Nobel Laureate, but because it has the guts and the prowess to hit its deadline with urgency and precision.
“The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish.”
Rating: 4 out of 5