Early on in The Post, the camera sits outside a White House window, eavesdropping on President Nixon during a fiery phone call. In this private moment, he shares a sentiment we now hear publicly from the current crook-in-chief: The press is the enemy.
Late in the film, a 1971 Supreme Court ruling reminds us that “the press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” This reminder resonates loudly in 2017, as our corrupt leader cries “fake news” over every fact that doesn’t fall in his favor.
Steven Spielberg’s latest film may seem like a square, cinematically populist drama on the surface. But he isn’t looking at history through rose-colored glasses here. Although it’s partly a celebration of a watershed event, The Post is a sharp period piece that cuts through the core of contemporary American conflicts.
The Post details the Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers — the top-secret government study that revealed all the lies and political hubris behind the Vietnam War.
Yes, the New York Times beat the Post to the punch in publishing excerpts of the Papers. Some members of the “accuracy police” are ragging on the film because of that fact. But there’s a much larger story here, and the film never belittles what the Times accomplished.
First-time screenwriter Liz Hannah and Spotlight scribe Josh Singer focus on the Washington Post to tell a timely underdog tale. They shed light on Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, which she inherited after her husband’s suicide. The film shows her male colleagues buzzing around her, “skittish about having a woman in charge.” Many stubborn Americans felt the same way during the 2016 presidential election nearly a half-century later, and look how that turned out.
The film emerges as an empowering portrait of a woman breaking through the glass ceiling and shattering the patriarchy below. When the Post dodges a federal injunction, Graham beams with pride as she walks past a crowd of women on the steps of the Supreme Court. It’s an indelible image that beautifully mirrors the women’s movement presently sweeping the nation.
Streep delivers one of her most poignant performances, making Graham’s tension our own as she quietly carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. Tom Hanks is the perfect foil to her character, co-starring as the Post’s gruff and tough editor Ben Bradlee, who pushes Graham to risk her reputation and fight for the truth. As Bradlee’s wife, Tony (Sarah Paulson), reminds him, “We both know this will do nothing but burnish your reputation. But to make this decision, to risk her fortune and the company that’s been her entire life? Well, I think that’s brave.” He doesn’t interrupt or argue, and nor should he. Unlike Jeremy Renner’s mansplainer extraordinaire in Wind River, Bradlee steps back, listens and learns. It’s one of the year’s most powerful and relevant scenes — a stirring testament to the power of letting someone’s voice be heard in their time to speak out.
One of the more visually stunning and Spielbergian sequences occurs near the end. Spielberg lingers on the mechanical process of printing. You can practically feel ink smudging on your hands. As we see the Pentagon Papers issue of the Washington Post run through the press, the film reminds us of the power of the written word and how the possibility of revolution is right at our fingertips.
The Post isn’t merely an Oscar-bait prestige project for Spielberg. He pursued this film out of an urgent desire to “tell this story today.” He was in the middle of post-production on the futuristic extravaganza Ready Player One when he received Hannah’s spec script for The Post, which he shot and completed within nine months. Tackling the film with speed and tenacity, Spielberg is like one of the hungry journalists at the heart of the story.
The Post is a film we all need right now: a story of courage amid corruption, bravery in breaking down barriers and the importance of holding people accountable — even those in positions of power high above us.