(2017—Director: Steven Spielberg)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
“You know, my husband once said that ‘the news is the first rough draft of history.’” — Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) to Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks)
Potential spoilers below
To say that Steven Spielberg has had a storied career is one of cinema’s greatest understatements. The auteur has reached the stage where he no longer has to prove his worth to an industry and can create with both abandon and with the skills and wisdom he has garnered over close to five decades of work. With that freedom also emerges a few built-in expectations in the master artist’s audience.
Spielberg released War Horse in 2011 and Bridge of Spies in 2015, two efforts whose modest and sure-handed crafts creep over and replace any underwhelming reactions over repeat viewings to leave powerful and lasting impressions in the audience’s minds. Then, one could argue that Spielberg stumbled with 2016’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG, a charming if unmemorable fantasy adventure. On the rebound, Spielberg directed and helped produce the upcoming Ready Player One (coming at the end of March 2018) and realized afterwards that he had an uneventful schedule for the majority of 2017. Thus he turned to the screenplay penned by newcomer Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (Oscar-winning co-writer of Spotlight) about The Washington Post and the “Pentagon Papers”. Though well-acted and solidly-crafted, The Post falls short of packing the same punch as 1976’s All the President’s Men and Spotlight, Singer’s previous script. The Post leaves me wondering how much stronger the project would have been if Spielberg did not push to shoot and release it in less than a year.
It is 1971 and America is deep in the midst of the Vietnam War. The Washington Post, with Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) as the first female publisher of a major newspaper and Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) as its hard-nosed editor eager to turn the city paper into a truly nationwide publication, pursues a great political controversy first uncovered by The New York Times. This controversy involves a federal government-level cover-up involving American relations with Vietnam that spans three decades and four presidents, documented in the classified “Pentagon Papers”, concluding that the Vietnam conflict is but a military folly. With their trusted employees and their careers and the freedom of the press on the line, Graham and Bradlee must work together to expose this cover-up by first obtaining and then disseminating the contents of the papers to an unaware American public.
Remarkably, The Post unites a modern directing and producing master with one from the acting field. Besides a voice cameo in 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, The Post is Meryl Streep’s first proper appearance in a film directed by Steven Spielberg and gives the best performance of the film by far. Streep manages to inject a subtle vulnerability into Kay Graham that stems from her character’s discomfort in an unprecedented position. This allows the movie’s empowered femininity to work with nuance instead of hitting too on the nose. Tom Hanks does great work as expected from his fifth acting turn in a Spielberg film, even though he comes off as more or less an angrier version of his Bridge of Spies character. His assertive take on Ben Bradlee contrasts with Jason Robard’s laid-back, Oscar-winning interpretation of the real-life figure in All the President’s Men (whose storyline takes place a few years after The Post).
Outside of Streep, Hanks, and Spielberg’s confident handling of a tight script, The Post often feels like a passion project undermined by a swift production. Spielberg might think that releasing the movie in less than a year would allow for it to rally and enhance the disfavor towards the current presidential administration in America. In all honesty, however, what remains is just a well-made political thriller with a somewhat fleeting impact. The film’s subpar opening Vietnam battle sequence (centering on a blank Matthew Rhys performance) is a disappointment coming from the man who gave the world Saving Private Ryan. With more screentime, Bob Odenkirk as Post journalist Ben Bagdikian, Bruce Greenwood as the conflicted Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara, Sarah Paulson as Bradlee’s wife, and Alison Brie as Graham’s adult daughter could have produced great side characters rather than familiar faces with some lines to give. These supporting turns and other craft efforts such as John Williams’ sparse score are assured but unremarkable, save for Michael Kahn’s occasional fast cuts of printing presses. Whereas Bridge of Spies takes a few re-watches to grasp its complex story and execution in full, additional viewings of The Post offer little from what the first viewing has already offered.
In the end, The Post does not hold much of a candle to All the President’s Men and Spotlight in the subgenre of political thrillers involving journalism. Those latter two movies lingered on the unsexy, laborious efforts of the little guys in their respective newspapers. The Post is the sexy, prestige, and arguably unchallenging version of those stories, with Streep the publisher and Hanks the editor dealing with comparatively-smaller stakes due to the greater power they carry in the publication. Of course, such an adequate film will not stop me from watching Spielberg’s future projects or revisiting old ones. Yet I still go to his films hoping that his increase in age will result in an increase in making cinema that both challenges and entertains more than before. That takes risk as well as time. A secure legacy should breed greater adventures and Spielberg need not fear to take his time in realizing those greater adventures with which to enthrall generations of audiences to come.
(Parental Note: The Post has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA “for language and brief war violence”. It has also been rated 12A by the BBFC for “strong language” and “brief battle violence” and rated A-III (Adults and older teens) by the Catholic News Service for containing “scenes of military combat and fleeting rough language.”)