At a certain point, Steven Spielberg gave up on trying to be the most innovative filmmaker alive. Oh, I’m not saying he’s a bad director now – he’s always been great at executing simple stories well told. I just mean that he used to feel invigorated by executing sequences just right, and finding fresh ways to execute classic recipes. He could pull off intense frights in Jaws, exciting cheers in E.T., or daring dos in Raiders all by hitting the execution at the exact right moment. Around the time of Schindler’s List (still his greatest achievement), he stopped focusing on trying to change the formula and just use what he had as expertly as possible. It’s still strong, but because he doesn’t care as much about that execution, some of the subtleties he once trafficked in have fallen by the wayside. Such is the case with The Post, a film that is exactly what you expect, and gets by through carefully making sure that there’s some nuance to balance out his more on-the-nose bullet points.
In 1971, a young State Department analyst named Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) released thousands of pages to the public about the U.S. government’s twenty-year history of lying about the Vietnam War, starting with President Truman, worsened under Kennedy and Johnson, and eventually falling in the lap of Nixon. When Nixon’s press-despising team blocks and sues the New York Times for revealing these documents, the story falls in the lap of the up-and-coming Washington Post, led by newcoming editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and the even newer owner and publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep). Faced with going up and against the United States government, as well as turning their backs on some of their closes friends, Graham, Bradlee, and their staff (including Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Carrie Coon, John Rue, and Jessie Mueller) to decide if they will release the story and strike a blow for First Amendment rights in the face of Executive Branch overreach.
Like all of Spielberg’s best films, from Schindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan, The Post works best when it operates through subtlety. Obviously considering the very blatant metaphor about the Press vs. the White House, subtlety will not be found in the main story, so it must be found in the film’s underlying (or perhaps main) message: the rise of a powerful woman in a time when they weren’t allowed to be. Katharine Graham was the first female publisher, forced into the position by her husband’s suicide (mentioned once and then never again), even though it was her father’s newspaper. She never expected to have to run the paper, and the thought of a woman doing so during a fairly sexist period in history was unheard of. Spielberg and Streep work in tandem to bring these struggles, fears and themes to life, present from the moment a nervous Streep walks into a board room and we see a field of old, white men. The film doesn’t draw attention to this fact, or go out of its way to beat you with symbolism – it simply presents the facts and let’s the audience member figure out what’s going on. From there, we see Streep selling us on this in the way only she can – with body language. Each turn of her body, each frozen sentence, each positioning in front of the camera tells us all we need to know about this woman, her position, and what life was like in the 70s for a woman, even a highly wealthy, powerful woman. We can tell that she feels out of place, looked down upon, and belittled for her gender. On the flip side, this subtlety makes it all the more triumphant when the film builds to its climax. The bulk of the film’s pivotal moments come in a twenty-minute sequence where these men (including our hero, Tom Hanks) continue a lengthened argument in front of Streep as she feels the weight of her decision (while wearing the world’s greatest kaftan). The way she stammers at first, second guessing herself, before finding her voice and growing into the film’s powerful protagonist is underplayed on the surface, and yet still resonates as the film’s powerhouse moment. It’s really amazing to hear how different a word can sound in the mouth of a talented actor, and that has never been more true with Hanks and Streep, who make the most out of the words “She” and “However,” respectively. However, the film’s best feature is the way it quietly portrays the most universal story there is. While the film’s plot and message can feel a bit obvious, especially considering its motives are worn blatantly on its sleeve, it also understands that what audiences want, more than anything else, is a story about good people doing the right thing, starring our two most beloved actors and made by our most beloved director. Watching the film, it just feels right. Not good, not bad. Just right.
However, if subtlety is what this film gets very right, then what it gets very wrong is, well, the opposite of that. These are the moments that I like to call “Spielberg Screaming,” like when he ruined the very-subtle Munich with a final shot of the Twin Towers, or when he gilded the lily on Lincoln by actually showing the assassination and then flashing back to a speech, as opposed to the great final shot of Lincoln walking into a bright light after ending the Civil War. Sometimes, when he’s feeling extra-emotional, Spielberg just can’t help himself, and his films suffer for it. The Post is no exception. The film works best when it actually establishes stakes for the paper, such as when Bradlee and his staff devote their efforts to figuring out why the Times was silencing their top reporter, Neil Sheehan, or the aforementioned debates over whether they should publish the Pentagon Papers or not. In these moments, the film finds a unique, fun voice that keeps the film feeling breezy, fun, and inspiring. However, for every moment of subtle triumph, there comes a moment where Spielberg turns to the camera, looks the audience directly in the eye, and says “Do ya get it? How about now?” These moments come in many forms, such as a series of monologues blatantly explaining the film’s themes and messages. The number of times where they blatantly say “We can’t allow the President of the United States to get away with lying to us! That’s why we have the press!” or some variation is almost punishing, but I could sit through all of those than have to listen to Sarah Paulson’s on-the-nose monologue that undercuts the entire feminist message of the film (how DARE you ruin a goddess like Paulson this way, Spielberg). The dialogue becomes so blatant in its purpose and so lacking in nuance that it almost borders on hammy camp at several points. Furthermore, I really want someone to explain to me whatever the hell Bradley Whitford was instructed to do in this movie, because I for one can’t understand why they would waste him in such a way. It’s almost like they wanted him to play a variation of the Jack Kramer role that Bill Pullman played in Battle of the Sexes, except where that role was a combination of archetype and nuance, this role lacks any sense of refinement. He’s such a cliché businessman tool that it almost feels like a cartoon. And while it is nowhere near the most egregious flaw in the movie, I for one could do without the shot of Katharine Graham descending the steps, bathed in white light, surrounded by an army of women looking up to her. It has enough emotion to excuse itself, but my God, is it blunt in its intentions. Even John Williams’ score feels overbearing here, and that’s something I thought I’d never say. While he makes sure to temper himself throughout, and it is in no way a bad film, this film serves as a prime example of what Spielberg looks like when he indulges in his worst tendencies.
The film is sort of a mixed bag of contradictions. Hanks feels utterly miscast as Ben Bradlee, but that doesn’t mean he’s unenjoyable. He has several line deliveries which are executed in that special way that only he can. What’s really amazing here is that this is Streep’s best work in a decade. I know it’s old hat at this point to talk about how wonderful an actress she is, but it’s truly remarkable how often she can hit it out of the park, especially when she’s paired with a great director. Her Graham is a master class in how to portray thoughts, emotions, and beliefs through facial recognition and body language. As for the rest of the cast, it’s largely hit and miss. Bob Odenkirk and Tracy Letts are both wonderful here, as is Bruce Greenwood, who looks and sounds like Robert McNamara. Rhys does a fine job as Ellsberg, and David Cross is memorable, even if his only purpose in the film is to tempt the audience into shouting Mr. Show lines at the screen whenever he works with Odenkirk. Jesse Plemons is slowly emerging as one of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, as he damn near steals the movie out from under Tom Freaking Hanks and Meryl Freaking Streep, and Michael Stuhlbarg makes an impression as the editor of the New York Times. However, there are a handful of wasted/bad performances here too. As mentioned above, I have no idea what the film is trying to do with Bradley Whitford, other than waste him. Sarah Paulson plays the Supportive Wife Who Speaks In Big Speeches, the worst trope there is and a role that is highly beneath her talents. And Alison Brie shows up for twelve seconds as Graham’s daughter, begging the question of why the filmmakers went out of their way to get Brie to play this tiny of a role. All in all, the cast is an odd collection for an odd film.
The best comparison I could make for The Post is a 1940s inspirational story filmed like a 70s thriller, although slightly less subtle than the best of them. It’s truly frustrating when this film misses the bar at several key moments. However, I think the reason that it is frustrating is because of the caliber involved here. These are America’s favorite filmmakers, and we want the best. The film is always The Best, but it is always Good. And when it is great, it’s great. It’s not perfect, but it’s fun popcorn entertainment at its finest, and I’ll still take that any day of the week, especially when it means I can see Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Steven Spielberg all in one place. It’s not the film America deserves, or the film America needs, but it is the film America wants. And that’s all I can ask for.