The Post (2017)
Dir. Steven Spielberg; Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk
[3.5 out of 4 stars]
Steven Spielberg has had one of the most enviable reigns in Hollywood. He entered filmmaking as part of the first class of directors to graduate film school, alongside the likes of Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Brian DePalma, and Francis Ford Coppola. With the one-two punch of Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), he was launched into the cultural zeitgeist, an ascent that even the failure of 1941 (1979) could not slow. After 30 years of a career that has included two Academy Awards for Best Director, one for Best Picture, and countless nominations, it would be easy for him to simply rest easy on the knowledge that his movies will be watched forever. However, if he were to do that, he simply wouldn’t be the filmmaker he is. He continually takes on expansive and intimidating projects, and surrounds himself with the absolute best performers, writers, and technicians. His newest project, The Post (2017), was fast-tracked in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and the introduction of “fake news” because he and producers felt it was a vital story to tell.
In this era of daily “Breaking News” bulletins from The Washington Post, it’s difficult to imagine a time when that newspaper was little more than, as one character in the movie puts it, “a small town paper.” With the exception of a brief prelude that establishes the torment of life as a soldier in the Vietnam War, the film takes place in 1971. Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), called Kay, is in charge of the paper, a position that she came into after her husband committed suicide. The business has been in the family for years, but her father had elected to leave it to his son-in-law instead of his daughter, because, as she puts it, “that’s just how it was done.” She and the all-male board have decided to take the company public, an undertaking which inspires no small measure of anxiety for her, fearing a loss of control for the family. Running things in the newsroom is Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), referred to on more than one occasion as a “pirate” for the ruthless way he and his staff chase down stories. As Kay battles with her board and her anxieties, The New York Times break a story on the ‘Pentagon Papers,’ an assemblage of classified reports detailing the failures of the Vietnam War that have been kept from the American public. President Nixon orders the Attorney General to press for an injunction, and The Times is silenced for a few days. Bradlee wants nothing more than to get his hands on these documents and publish them, but Kay fears the repercussions of publishing. If the position of the government is upheld, and The Post publishes, then the financial backers could pull out of the company, leaving them entirely bankrupt. And so we enter into the fray– the dual stories of Kay Graham and her paper, and Bradlee and his newsroom.
After All The President’s Men (1976) set the bar for newspaper movies by depicting The Washington Post and its exposition of the Watergate scandal, it’s difficult to discuss one film without comparing it to the other, especially when the topic of both is the same paper. Yet, this film is an entirely different sort of story than All The President’s Men, or really any other journalism movie that has come before it. Often they focus on a figure working on a story, such as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), or more on the story itself like State of Play (2009). Even when these approaches are blended, such as in Spotlight (2015), the story being reported on still takes up more than half the narrative. There is a reason why it is called The Post and not “The Pentagon Papers”: Bradlee and his team’s reporting is central to the film, but there is never any real doubt that they will find the papers; no, the real battle raging at the center of this narrative is that for the soul of The Post. Bradlee has a ‘take-no-prisoners’ view on reporting, exhibited when he erupts at the news that his reporter is being barred from Nixon’s daughter’s wedding. It is a point of view that conflicts intensely with Kay’s board, who wants to duck and cover in the face of the big story, worried about skittish shareholders. Kay is caught in the middle, but there is a difference between the two sides: Bradlee argues with her but respects her authority; her board, with the exception of one member, feel that “there was a reason” her father left the paper to her husband.
The tension is excruciating as the story weaves these two conflicts together and reflects a truly remarkable screenplay. Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, it is a masterclass in balancing human drama and the high stakes world of political journalism. It is a dialogue-driven script, filled with boardroom meetings, newsroom showdowns, and fiery debates between Kay and Ben, but they are invigorating because the dialogue is crisp and rarely wastes a word. Our first introduction to Kay and Bradlee comes at a breakfast before Kay has to descend on the board to debate the decision to go public. The dialogue blends sharp jabs at one another with debate about the morning’s headlines. The golden rule of screenwriting is that no line or moment can serve only one purpose, and this scene may be a whole lot of exposition, but it also does a remarkable amount to characterize both of these central figures, as well as lighten the mood with humor. When one of the key reporters on the story, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), brings an enlightening stack of local papers to Bradlee, he says “I’ve always wanted to be a part of a small rebellion.” It is a very funny line, but it also comes at a poignant moment in the narrative when Bradlee and Kay can reflect on the decisions they’ve made in pursuing the story.
Yet, we know that it’s possible to make a bad movie from a great script though [I’m looking at you Hitchcock (2012)]and it is so vitally important to have the right people reading your lines, and the production secured some of the best. In their first movie together, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep show why they are such coveted and respected performers. Hanks brings his everyman charm to Bradlee, but balances it with a gruffness that distinguishes his performance from Jason Robards’ portrayal of Bradlee in All The President’s Men. But this is Streep’s show, and she seems to know it. Kay Graham begins the movie as a rather timid woman. She walks into her first board meeting with reports on the deal- “homework” as Bradlee calls it. Sitting there she realizes that none of her male counterparts have brought them along. Her eyes dart, she shifts the binder under the table, takes a deep breath, and only brings it back up when she sees one of her male counterparts place his down on the table. Streep conveys this deep discomfort through small physical tics: a hand wringing here, a slight stutter there. In each scene, she builds Graham up, beginning to speak out and take a stand. In one of the most pivotal scenes in the film, she sits in her dining room surrounded by her board, Bradlee pacing back and forth. Kay has already said she wants to run the Papers, but a new wrinkle about sourcing has reinvigorated the debate. Three of her board members are telling her what she “must do.” After she has heard quite enough, she stands and walks to Bradlee, her back now turned to the other men in the room. When one board member (Bradley Whitford) tries to interrupt, she simply turns and says “I’m talking to Mr. Bradlee now.” Streep has showed us a woman who has risen to the most daunting of challenges, and steered her business through waters very few could manage. It is in every eye movement, hand clench, and calm delivery that Streep finds the essence of Kay Graham, and it is her finest performance in years.
Bringing all of this to the screen is Spielberg, turning in his most inspired directorial effort since Lincoln (2012). From the outset of the film, he favors an interspersion of low and high angle shots, conveying a sense of discombobulation and unease running through the film. He inserts them at moments of high tension to throw the viewer off, and we are deeply aware of the uneasy footing the characters are on. But, after Kay makes her decision, there is not a single shot that is markedly low or high. The camera stays just about level. The characters have found their path, and so the visual language echoes that. It is a truly remarkable touch. At times, though, Spielberg is inclined to melodrama, opting for a zoom worthy of an eye-roll during a tense phone call, or a flourishing pan during a newsroom dash, but these aren’t the images you remember, so we can forgive him for them. At one point, he gives us a montage of the printing presses making the newspapers, cutting from the whirring conveyor belts, to the ink-stained stamps, on and on from start to finish. It’s a wonder no one had ever done this before in a newspaper movie, but then again, no one would have done it quite like Spielberg. In making a love letter to print journalism, Spielberg has photographed it from the top down, from the the reporter to the printing presses.
At a time when journalists in this country find themselves under near-constant attack, it is invigorating to see a movie that reminds us of the oft unsung heroics of reporting. There is a moment in the movie when Bradlee says “the only way to protect the right to publish is to publish.” In attempting to suppress the Pentagon Papers, President Nixon attempted to infringe on the First Amendment, a reality which led the Supreme Court to side with the newspapers and allow the documents to be written about and published. In that decision, the court states that “the press was for the governed, not the governors,” a fact that our current administration would do well to remember. The Post is a timely story that reminds us of the central nature of the press in the never-ending struggle to speak truth to power and expose those who would infringe on the rights of the people. Spielberg and company construct an accomplished and important film which should go down as one of the greatest journalism movies to come out of Hollywood.