The Post is the latest historical drama from director Steven Spielberg, following his recent Oscar-winning efforts such as Lincoln and Bridge of Spies. The project came together very quickly last year, with the cast and crew assembling in March to get it through the pipeline. Given the nature of its story, there’s an obvious parallel to be made to the current United States administration and its strenuous relationship with the media, which is why Spielberg and his team felt it was so necessary to move swiftly and get it to the big screen while the material is still timely. Whenever a film is rushed along, there’s always a risk it was developed too fast, but that isn’t the case here. The Post is an expertly-crafted and compelling film brought to tantalizing life by a master director and an all-star ensemble cast.
In the early 1970s while America is in the midst of the Vietnam War, the Washington Post is a small local paper trying to keep up with larger outlets like the New York Times. Led by Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the country’s first female newspaper publisher, the company is hoping to improve it fortunes by going public on the stock market. Meanwhile, tenacious editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is constantly on the prowl for any story he can find, looking for anything that can give him an edge over the competition.
The country is rocked to its core when the Times publishes a searing exposé detailing the shocking truth behind America’s involvement in Vietnam and how four different U.S. presidents covered it up. After President Richard Nixon bars the paper from publishing further stories on the matter until a court hearing, Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) is able to acquire the classified documents for the Washington Post through a source. Graham then has to make the most important decision of her career: either publish the “Pentagon Papers” and fulfill her company’s obligation to the general public or hold so she doesn’t endanger the paper’s future.
As indicated above, The Post (despite its 1970s setting) is very timely today, with a message about the importance of the First Amendment and freedom of the press. While it’s quite clear what Spielberg is saying, he deserves credit for tastefully handling it in a way so that it never comes across as too preachy. Even without the connection to modern politics, The Post works as a well-told and entertaining story on its own merit. Much of the credit there has to be given to co-writers Liz Hannah and Spotlight Oscar-winner Josh Singer (working in familiar territory) for their approach to the script. The integration of the subplot involving Graham taking the paper public is weaved in to the main narrative nicely, providing the audience with layers to contemplate. Their screenplay isn’t a simple surface-level examination, and the film is all the better for it.
From a directorial sense, Spielberg remains at the top of his game – working with a kind of movie he’s grown quite comfortable in during the latter stages of his career. He makes the excellent decision to incorporate actual audio from the real Richard Nixon, injecting a sense of dread in the tale by giving the plucky Post gang a true villain to work against and showing the younger members of the audience (who didn’t live through these events) the threats from the President are not sensationalized for the sake of the film’s agenda. Unsurprisingly, Spielberg also maintains a strong sense of pace, as The Post zips along in engaging fashion, clocking in at just under two hours. Multiple scenes are elevated by John Williams’ musical score, which adds palpable tension to basic conversations and pulls at the heartstrings when called upon. Once again, the legendary duo work their magic.
The work in front of the camera is just as impressive. Hanks plays slightly against type as an editor with a rough exterior, willing to bend morals (and arguably, the law) in order to get his job done. But the actor also demonstrates the softer side of Bradlee in several key sequences, painting him as a man dedicated to doing the right thing no matter what the cost. Hanks had big shoes to fill playing Bradlee decades after Jason Robards won an Oscar for that role in All the Presidents Men, but he’s more than up for the task. Streep is also terrific as Graham, shouldering a powerful emotional through-line of what it means to be a woman making a name for herself in the face of doubt. She has a very satisfying arc over the course of the film, with numerous scenes displaying why Streep is an icon in her profession. When the two leads share the screen, it’s captivating to watch them work and play off each other.
The Post focuses primarily on Hanks and Streep, but the supporting cast is also very good. Odenkirk has one of the meatier parts, showcasing his range by portraying a well-intentioned journalist happy to help in the investigation. Bruce Greenwood also has a strong presence as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, serving as a key lynchpin in the primary conflict about what the paper should do with their newfound information. The remainder of the roster is a who’s who of character actors to round out the Post staff and their families, all making the most of what they have to work with – even if their screen time is minimal. There are no bad performances to be found here.
Of all of this year’s awards contenders, The Post is perhaps the one that fits the mold of traditional “Oscar bait” the most, but it rises above that label by never being too ponderous or ploying. Yes, the social commentary is apparent for anyone paying attention to the headlines, but Spielberg presents his story in such a way it’s hard not to get onboard. History buffs and cinephiles will find something to enjoy here, and The Post is certainly worth catching in theaters as it awaits whatever Academy Award nominations come its way.
The Post is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 116 minutes and is rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence.
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