Steven Spielberg’s The Post has literally everything going for it. Arriving at a time when more people believe in “fake news” that suits their political ideology than legitimate news sources that don’t, it serves as a reminder of a time when we all trusted journalists to be our check against a corrupt system. And as the #metoo movement escalates, putting power in the hands of women in fields where they have been either abused or disregarded, The Post focuses on Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the first female newspaper publisher and one of the most powerful women in journalism.
The perfect storm continues in the film’s focus on the release of the crucial Pentagon Papers, secret documents that exposed the White House’s lies about the Vietnam War and set the stage for Nixon’s eventual resignation. The parallels to today are almost too rich, and Spielberg the perfect director to romanticize the hard-working, altruistic newspaper men and women, devoted purveyors of the truth. If The Post had ended with a mocking “For @realdonaldtrump” we would totally get it.
And yet The Post isn’t all it could be, failing to reach the incredibly high standard of the film it most closely relates to, Alan J. Pakula’s seminal Watergate drama All the President’s Men. Serving as a loose prequel of sorts, this isn’t about the gumshoe work that went into investigating the veracity of the Pentagon Papers, but of the agonizing decision whether to publish them at all. Tom Hanks is the determined, ferocious Washington post editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, a hot-tempered muckraker willing to stoke the flames of controversy to see The Washington Post reach the national level of The New York Times.
Deeper concerns weigh on Graham’s mind, though, and it begins with the Nixon administration putting an unusual amount of pressure on the press to cover the news as they want to see it covered. Gee, that sounds familiar. Seeing as how the paper has just been banned from covering Tricia Nixon’s wedding, one can only imagine what kind of repercussions there would upon releasing documents that showed how the government really felt about the Vietnam War. Graham has to worry about what Nixon could do to her newspaper and its legacy, which she is now the rightful keeper of. She’s surrounded by men who see her as illegitimate for gaining the paper only through her husband’s death, and not someone who knows the business. She has questions of loyalty, chiefly in the case of family friend Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) who happens to be Nixon’s Secretary of Defense. Most of all, Graham has self doubt to compete with, and that may be the most crippling concern of all. It doesn’t help that her board, entirely comprised of sexist old men, undermine and demean her, knowing she’s in the next room within earshot.
Streep is fantastic as you already guessed, and it’s fascinating to watch Graham shed her reserved, quiet demeanor and become someone who can stand up for herself in a crowded room of egotistic men. That she’s actually evolving to fight for a cause bigger than herself, the right of a free press to be defenders of the truth, is like catnip for Spielberg and screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer who give her plenty of grandiose, schmaltzy monologues to bite into. It can be a bit much, which is something I think you can say for practically every Spielberg movie. There’s always one extra heartwarming beat too many, one extra monologue that underscores the movie’s themes too pointedly. The Post has multiple, and while we expect a certain amount of rhapsodizing over journalism and feminism, the pandering does get excessive. Hey, we get it. Streep is perfectly fine in showing us this stuff, thanks. Hanks is pretty good at it, too. But nope, they are forcefully played in such a way that we have a pretty good idea they’ll be the Oscars vignette for the inevitable Best Picture nomination.
Spielberg’s adoration cuts both ways and where it truly inspires is in his depiction of the newsroom. His camera zips in and around the paper’s newsroom, creating a palpable buzz so thick it’s only matched by the whirring of the newspaper printing presses. You can’t help but get wrapped up in every new development, delivered by an amazing ensemble (Carrie Coon, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts just to name a few) with the urgency of a breaking news headline. The Post makes me wish I had spent more time in offices like this during the formative years of my career; the electricity, the energy is exhilarating.
While its imperfections glare like the marker corrections of an overworked copy editor, The Post is an important, necessary statement on journalism’s place in strengthening democracy by speaking truth to power.