Film Review – The Post
What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Steven Spielberg? Any number of answers would work: Indiana Jones, killer sharks, friendly aliens, giant dinosaurs. Spielberg has made a career of making entertaining pictures that have reached a vast range of audiences. And while that will most likely be the legacy he will leave behind, in recent years he has delved into a fascinating world of contemplative, adult material. Starting with Lincoln (2012) and Bridge of Spies (2015), we find Spielberg working with politically charged situations in key points in history. It’s a welcomed change, to be honest. For a filmmaker known for rousing viewers with high emotion to the point of being schmaltzy, seeing him take on these types of stories proves just how diverse his skill set is.
The Post (2017) shows this mature side of Spielberg coming to full realization. We’re taken back to the height of the Vietnam War, and the infamous Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers, some of you may remember, was an extensive and detailed report revealing that the U.S. Government, including President Kennedy and Johnson, had lied to the American public about the extent of America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict, as well as the effectiveness of their presence there. The film – co-written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer – explores the leak that brought the Pentagon Papers to the public, and the massive risk The Washington Post took in publishing it.
To say that The Post is relevant to current events would be a massive understatement. We live in a time where news outlets are taking constant bombardment from government officials regarding “fake news.” The battle for the public’s trust seems to be in constant flux, where serious journalism has to contend with scandal-driven hit pieces, clickbait reactionary stories, and pre-packaged memes spit out as fact. It’s a difficult job to have – it takes an extreme amount of will power to face persecution head on knowing what you’re doing is in the best interest of the country.
That’s the issue our protagonists face. At the time of the film’s setting, The Washington Post was riding on fumes. Readership was down, The New York Times was dominating, and the company was in the middle of transitioning from a family-owned business to a publicly owned one. Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) inherited the company from her late husband, and she fears that her handling of affairs may have lead to the public sale. Not only that, but The Washington Posts’ ties to high-level politicians created a conflict of interest. Both Kay and her editor in chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) had close friendships to presidents, senators, cabinet members, etc. – which made it difficult when the Pentagon Papers fell into their possession. To release the report would not only jeopardize their friendships to these people, but it would also incur the legal wrath of the government toward The Washington Post itself.
The central character is Kay, and Meryl Streep – one of cinema’s great actors – displays her moral dilemma with restrained excellence. This is a person who, if we were to squint a certain way, would look like those high society snobs, rubbing elbows with the rest of society’s top one percent. But Graham (the first female publisher of a major American newspaper) is much more complex then that. Through the writing, direction, and Streep’s superb performance, we get a sense that Graham realizes the precarious position she is put in. She represents much more than just a publisher. This is a lone woman in a powerful role in an industry run by men, pushing and pulling her in directions they think is best. Not only are the Vietnam War and freedom of speech put under the microscope, but gender dynamics are also of great importance. It’s amazing that, after so many years and so many great performances, that Streep can continue to show how good she is on screen. Sure, the rest of the cast is stellar (including Tom Hanks as the gruff Bradlee), but make no mistake about it: this is Kay Graham’s story, and Streep owns the character with every fiber of her being.
Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography captures the era with a washed out, muted color palette. This aesthetic choice lends to a documentary like tone. When the camera follows Bradlee around his home as he and his staff try to organize the endless stacks of Pentagon Papers, the result is the feeling of us being right there in the room with them. Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn’s editing knows when to slow things down when characters are in a moment self reflection, and to speed things up to bring us to the edge of our seats. One telephone conversation, where multiple people are on the line eagerly anticipating information to get passed, is edited together with a great rhythm. Even though all we see is a montage of people’s faces, the construction is so well organized that its impact is as effective as an action scene.
Anyone with the slightest curiosity – and access to the internet – will have known the outcome of this story, and how it lead almost directly into the Watergate Scandal. But Spielberg, with his mastery of storytelling craft, allows this moment in time to feel alive, urgent, and necessary. The Post is grown up filmmaking, made by professionals all clicking in near perfect sync with each other.