20th Century Fox
It’s little wonder that Steven Spielberg felt compelled to tell this story this year. What’s interesting is how The Post is relevant for reasons he couldn’t have predicted when he started making the film at the start of 2017, and I suspect its accelerated schedule is one of the reasons the film feels so alive and electric, even as it tells a story with an ending as widely known as this one.
Over the course of his long and storied career, Spielberg has been several different filmmakers, and watching that evolution has been one of the ongoing pleasures of my life as a film fan. The giddy rollercoaster designer of Raiders of the Lost Ark has become the thoughtful social critic of The Post while still maintaining one of the most natural compositional eyes of any working filmmaker, and it’s impressive to see just how entertaining he’s made what could have been a fairly dry account of a debate over publishing ethics.
Credit the script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer for finding the right way to tell this story, and here’s where that double feature idea might pay off some unexpected dividends. For much of my life, All The President’s Men has been accepted as film canon, one of the greats. One of my favorite books about filmmaking is William Goldman’s Adventures In The Screen Trade, which turns the making of that film into mythology. Looking at the film today, it is almost breathtaking how completely Katherine Graham was cut out of the story being told despite her real-life prominence. I would never call Goldman or Alan J. Pakula sexist, but their telling of that particular story erased a prominent player completely, and Spielberg’s The Post serves as a very pointed remedy to that.
At this point, Meryl Streep is like the weather, or the seasons of the year. She simply is. Streep has been so good for so long that we almost take her for granted. That’s why it’s worth noting when she excels even by her own lofty metric. She is the heart and soul of The Post as Kay Graham, whose deceased husband was the publisher of The Washington Post before her, and whose father was the one who gave it to her husband. From the very start of the film, there is a near constant stream of men telling her why her husband was better at the job than she’ll ever be. Bradley Whitford’s character might as well be named Man Splaining. And what makes Streep’s work so great is the way she shows us the exact moments where Kay decides she’s not going to agree with those people anymore.
Remember that moment in Captain Phillips where Tom Hanks has finally been rescued, and he suddenly gives in to shock and kind of quietly collapses, and Hanks was so good and raw and real in that moment that you were reminded of his greatness? Well, Streep has one of those moments here, and it made me want to stand up during my screening and cheer.
Speaking of Tom Hanks, he has great fun with Ben Bradlee as a character. Hanks is never happier than when he gets to play a curmudgeon, and here, he does a terrific job of playing a good newsman in search of a chance to be great. He’s hungry to prove that The Washington Post is as good a paper as The New York Times, equally capable of great investigative work, and when the film begins, he’s stuck once again sucking fumes when The Times breaks the story of a massive leak of Pentagon papers by a mysterious whistleblower. It’s the kind of story that Bradlee covets, and he tells his entire editorial team to start chasing it. When The Times ends up going to legal war with Nixon’s White House, it creates an opportunity, and thanks to Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), The Post finds itself in a position to defy the President, stand up for the idea of a free American press, and do some real good regarding the ongoing war in Vietnam, all in one fell swoop. If the decision was left to Bradlee, it would be a simple one, but he’s not the publisher of The Post. He’s the editor. It comes down to Kay, who is facing the first public stock offering for the paper. She needs to be the one to decide if they’re going to take the legal risk of publishing something that another paper has been expressly warned against.
20th Century Fox
The entire supporting cast is terrific, and one of the things that I loved is the way everyone gets a moment. It doesn’t feel like they have to tell everyone’s complete story, instead focusing on how everyone played some puzzle-piece part in this historic action, this remarkable bit of journalistic heroism. And, yeah, if I sound biased there, I am. I believe in the power of the free press, and I believe that great journalism is important. I have worked journalism-adjacent for most of my career, and I don’t pretend that I have ever done the truly hard work that great journalism requires. Because of what I’ve done, though, I have great respect for exactly what it takes to publish certain kinds of stories and to get them right. I believe that there is something urgently important about putting truth to power. If our government does something immoral or dangerous, it is the place of the press to hold them to it. I consider what the people at The Washington Post did to be courageous, and important, and I think the film captures the spirit of why it matters. But to also be entertaining — to find a way to playfully tweak the delivery of all of this information — is the real magic trick of this kind of filmmaking. You’re working backwards, starting from “This is important, and let me tell you why,” but in the end, it feels like Spielberg and his collaborators found this really nimble voice for the film.
One of the loveliest grace notes in the film comes near the end, and it’s not a spoiler to say that it involves Spielberg taking evident pleasure in the act of shooting all of the elements that went into the physical printing of a newspaper in the ‘70s. It was a sharp sword of nostalgia for me, having toured several newspaper printing rooms during that exact era. There’s a sly sequel-teasing set-up at the actual end of the film that deserves a laugh, except we’re living the real sequel right now, and that makes any of the film’s triumphs taste bitter. This is agitprop storytelling, no doubt about it, but aided and abetted by Hollywood’s best. You’ve got John Williams, Janusz Kaminski, Michael Kahn, Rick Carter… when Spielberg decides it’s time to tell a story, no one can work quicker with bigger names attached. Not even Clint Eastwood.
Spielberg is working from the hip here, and he does a great job of creating urgency that runs through everything. His need to tell the story is matched by the need of the characters onscreen to tell their story, and using Nixon as an example feels uncannily on-the-nose right now. Nixon would have been a nightmare on Twitter because he was better in print than in person. Thank god we have a press today that seems to be waking up to the challenge ahead of them as they deal not only with a pathological liar in the White House, but an entire generation of Washington players willing to support anything up to and including child abuse in order to advance the interests of the people who sign their checks. And thank god we have a populist storyteller as morally focused as he is gifted to use his platform to tell stories that matter at the exact moment they matter most.
The easy version of this film simply focuses on The Post’s decision; what makes Spielberg’s version really special is the way it focuses on Kay’s decision. This is a nakedly feminist film, and in addition to its easy and understandable support of the importance of a free press, it makes a strong case for the value of voices other than the white male default in that process. Kay’s courage is something different than Ben Bradlee’s. If he makes the call and it goes wrong, he moves on to his next job as an editor. The system will reward him and has a place for him because it values him a certain way. Kay, on the other hand, will be destroyed if The Post goes under, and it will be seen as a failure because she was a woman, not because of her judgment. Everything she does is seen through that filter, and she knows it. She is made acutely aware of it at every turn.
The most interesting thing they do with Ben Bradlee in the film is write his dawning awareness of just how much Kay has at stake… and how does that happen? Well, due largely to his wife, Tony (Sarah Paulson). It’s no accident that she’s the one doing the emotional work for Ben, helping him get to where he needs to be. That’s what makes them work as a couple, and it’s a lovely, honest bit of writing. We see the same thing happen with Lally Graham (Allison Brie) and her mother, and it’s a great moment for Brie to shine as a performer. It’s not just writing these moments so the actors look good, which is what often happens with Oscar-bait. Instead, this is strong, smart thematic writing showing how much of the work that allows the “important” work is invisible and done by people who are invisible. Kay Graham is the real hero of this film, and it all comes down to a single choice that only she can make.
It was a wonderful choice by all involved to pay due respect to Kay Graham and that decision, and it would not surprise me at all if Hollywood decided to give this film its highest honors in a few months. It is unapologetic about what it does, and it is more than it needs to be in order to make its points. There are plenty of true-life stories fueled by moral outrage that Hollywood tells every year; The Post is a great example of the way the very best in our business do it when it clearly matters to them.
Running time: 130 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic