To call Steven Spielberg's The Post a timely motion picture seems inadequate. Perhaps, instead, we should call it the timely motion picture of our time, a historical film that is, rather sadly, just as timely now as it was when this very story played out in the early 1970's.
While the words "fake news" were nowhere to be found and neither progressives nor conservatives would ever lay claim to such possibilities as biased newscasts, during these years freedom of the process was being called significantly into question as then President Richard M. Nixon sought to squelch any dissenting voices and, more specifically, to take whatever steps necessary to prevent publication of documents now known as the Pentagon Papers.
The Post puts us smack dab into the middle of all this tension, the frequently first to the line New York Times had already begun publishing documents leaked by Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) only to be hit with a federal injunction after three articles. Forced to withhold publication while the case made its way to an inevitable Supreme Court date, the New York Times had largely set the foundation for what is arguably one of the most important periods in American journalism as Washington Post publisher Katherine "Kay" Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) form an uncomfortable partnership to catch up to the New York Times and expose a massive cover-up of government secrets that spanned three decades and four U.S. Presidents.
Marking the first time that Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep have worked together on a film, The Post is an entertaining thriller of sorts for the adult population, a film that feels as old school as the journalism newsrooms portrayed in the film and pre-digital publishing techniques that will likely leave many either aghast or horrified.
Co-written by first time screenwriter Liz Hannah with Spotlight scribe Josh Singer, The Post is the perfect illustration for why we need true journalists to do what true journalists do and why we can't afford, individually or as a nation, to allow contemporary journalism to fade away at the hands of unsustainable advertising models or power structures that seek to silence it.
The Post is aware of the power and complexity of Graham's decisions here. The first female publisher of a major American newspaper, Graham risked the future of her paper, at the time nearing its IPO, and defended herself and her paper against a bullying President Nixon. Everywhere Graham turned, there were men trying to dominate, intimidate, humiliate, and just plain prove that Graham could be broken.
Meryl Streep excels at just about any type of character, but if we're being honest with ourselves you can tell that this is the kind of character that really brings her to life. Streep finds every little nuance here, from the vulnerability and hints of insecurity alongside adviser and board chair Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts) to the tension-filled conversations between Graham and longtime friend turned potential foe Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), whose legacy as Secretary of Defense will be tarnished if the papers are, indeed, published.
In a career filled with magnificent performances, it seems almost redundant to say that this is one of Streep's best but, I'll say it, this is one of Streep's best performances.
The same could be said for Tom Hanks as Ben Bradley, a little gruffer and rougher in real life than Hanks portrays him, but still portrayed with a growly, slightly bearish attitude that one can easily picture butting heads with the more politically correct, public friendly Graham. Hanks is most certainly one of Hollywood's most talented and likable actors working today, yet his recent film work has found him mostly staying within his comfort zone and, more often than not, never completely losing that familiar Tom Hanks presence. Hanks immerses himself in Ben Bradlee and turns in his best performance in several years, not likely to capture an Academy Award yet very likely to snag a well-deserved Best Actor nomination.
While The Post is fronted by Streep and Hanks, make no mistake that The Post is an ensemble motion picture and it's much credit to both Streep and Hanks that they're both talented enough actors to know how to weave themselves into the fabric of an ensemble effort. As Beebe, Tracy Letts is a wry presence who seems perfectly suited to his central role as Graham's key adviser. Bob Odenkirk may very well be the ensemble's all-star as assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian, whose ongoing presence at a series of pay phone booths gives the film some of its lighter, yet completely honest and resonant moments. Kudos must also be given to Greenwood as McNamara, David Cross as Post managing editor Howard Simons and, in one particularly effective scene, a delightful Sarah Paulson as Bradlee's rather hospitable wife.
Filmed over the course of six months months just this year, The Post benefits greatly from frequent Spielberg collaborators such as D.P. Janusz Kaminski, whose lensing affords the film a welcome warmth. While composer John Williams was hard at work on Spielberg's Ready Player One when this film popped up, he diverted his attention to this film and delivered another winner. Alan Silvestri took over scoring duties for Ready Player One.
The Post isn't quite a masterpiece, though it's a rather magnificent, entertaining and information motion picture. There are loose threads here and there and the inevitable challenge of producing a film more grounded in talk than action. Both Carrie Coon and Alison Brie are under-utilized as are a few of the other supporting players. However, these are minor quibbles for one of the year's best and most timely films and a surefire Oscar nominee in multiple categories.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic