The Post

 

Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson, Allison Brie, Matthew Rhys, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, Zach Woods, David Cross

Director: Steven Spielberg

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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As a loving tribute to the bygone age where newspapers were actually integral to society, Steven Spielberg's The Post has the urgency of historical retrospect on its side. The film cannily exploits the moral quandaries inherent in the way American democratic values could be bought via fancy dinner parties by creating the sensation of information in constant motion. As the camera pushes in on ringing phones and moving breathlessly through hallways, The Post feels like a classic Spielberg adventure thriller; think All the Presidents Men reimagined as Jurassic Park.

After Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) leaks the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, the Nixon administration bares down on the newspaper industry, even as that industry was built upon connections to those in political/governmental power. The Post zeroes in on this particular time in the country; following Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the longtime owner of The Washington Post after her husband's suicide in 1963, her crotchety editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and the rest of the newspaper staff, including Bob Odenkirk as resourceful reporter Ben Bagdikian. The screenplay by Josh Singer and Elizabeth Hannah is smart in the way it positions thorny relationships with major power players; including former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who shows up for Graham's dinner parties, and Bradlee's friendship with John F. Kennedy. The film's central moral predicament; of whether or not Graham will print the Ellsberg’s leaks, is bracketed by the paper's failing financial state and the vision of a lone woman inside a boardroom full of old men in suits. 

At its heart, The Post is about preserving American values through the act of truthful reporting, filtered through a quasi-female empowerment angle where Graham must stand up to systematic sexism. However, though Spielberg pushes this idea by framing Streep in stark contrast with ineffectual men, the film seems only partially interested in institutional sexism. There's a lot of speechifying, whirling camera movements, and reporters scrambling to keep up with information, proving Spielberg is clearly more excited by rough-worn journalism than the complex moral dilemmas lurking on the edges. During the film's best scenes, The Post leans into an energizing thriller atmosphere; especially moments where Bagdikian uses multiple pay phones to interact with mysterious sources. For his part, Odenkirk delivers the film's best performance; a sharp, wry piece of acting that enlivens the idea of chasing leads which could shape history.

Driven by John Williams's strident score and Spielberg's inventive direction, The Post is never less than entertaining, but there's something unconvincing about it's gee-whizz attitude when the culture of the time was much more fractious. The Pentagon Papers revealed the government's deception of the American people, which was a major shift, but other than nod towards the death of thousands in the war, the film's Capra-esque vision of the era feels disingenuous. The film is an emboldening acknowledgment of the power of the press, but it could have used more nuanced confusion of the times and less self-congratulatory fist-pumping. In its earnest attempts at speaking urgently to our fake news Trump era, The Post somehow feels hopelessly stuck in the Hollywood movie past.