The New York Times may have broken open the saga of the Pentagon Papers back in 1966 but it is the parallel story of The Washington Post told in the latest film from Steven Spielberg. A smart move. The Post is a fine drama of depth and substance, heightened by an intelligent focus on a tale of equal importance.
On face value, the title of The Post naturally refers to the newspaper itself, then under editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). On a more profound level however the ‘post’ here is not a printed one but an occupational position: the post of chief publisher. Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) was the first female publisher of a major newspaper in America, a post she inherited from her late husband and father before him, and faced a battle which well mirrored the one faced by her paper. Whilst The Washington Post fought for a free press, Kay’s struggle was a different form of oppression – one that was a matter of sex.
In an early scene of the film, Graham reels off facts, figures and arguments in support of delivering her paper’s initial public offering. A moment later she is trapped within a room full of suits who pay no attention to her existence, let alone hear her speak. It is only in the second act that Graham expresses the regret beneath this inequality, remarking that the inferiority of women was always a given and hinting that times are ready for change.
Streep is, of course, terrific in The Post; the film absolutely belongs to her and her journey is honest, raw and extremely relatable. Indeed, the greatest asset of the film is the decision by writer Liz Hannah to see the squabbles of men in power play second fiddle to the bravery of one woman.
Not forgetting the issue of the free press, the story of the expose of years of Presidential lies, deception and secrecy are well drawn. As with the best historical dramas, a sense of immediacy pervades The Post to overcome the knowledge of hindsight. You may know the outcome but the battle feels raw and thrillingly indefinite. Perhaps this is due to case’s pertinence to the present day and the worrying desire of current powers to discredit the press, defended here. ‘If we live in a world where the government tell us what we can and can’t print,’ says Bradlee, ‘then the Washington Post as we know it has already ceased to exist.’
With the film’s tonal allegiance to Bridge of Spies, Spielberg’s eye for espionage delivers solid work again here, with the director bringing too his trademark for exploring the familial. Sure, there’s power and grandeur in beautiful shots of the printing press in action but there’s intimacy too in the moment young Marina Bradlee (Austyn Johnson) makes lemonade for her father’s team of journalists.
Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List compatriot Janusz Kamiński is on good form here, with a smart grasp of era photography, as is John Williams with a sturdy score that never steals too much from the dialogue and action. Though thematically akin to 2015’s Spotlight, The Post isn’t so intense a work as the Tom McCarthy film; one might even call it a touch on the safe side. This is exactly the film you would expect from a coalition of Streep, Hanks and Spielberg.
Never missing a beat, The Post makes for immersive viewing that is pleasingly empowering. It is the product of impressively bankable talents coming together to tell a story well; which is exactly what they succeed in doing.