You know it’s a good year for cinema when a film like The Post is an underdog during awards season; this despite a pedigree that boasts the first collaboration between Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, and Tom Hanks. The latest film from Spielberg, coming to our theaters mere weeks before his next (Ready Player One is due at the end of March), moves and feels like the work of a younger filmmaker, but with the blocking and staging of a veteran. It is timely and urgent though set in the past, with a thrilling energy that can escape those films that brazenly engage with capital-S “significant” themes.
The story revolves around the procurement and subsequent publication of what would come to be known as The Pentagon Papers, a study commissioned by the Department of Defense (under Robert McNamara) about the Vietnam War, which revealed that four administrations basically felt that the war was unwinnable but to withdraw troops and admit defeat was too great a cost— a crushing, unprecedented humiliation that would permanently damage the morale and spirit of the nation that had already lost so many lives of young men to the conflict. At the same time, The Washington Post owner and publisher Kay Graham (Streep) has taken the company public so she can keep the paper afloat with the accompanying cash injection, but publishing the Papers may endanger the deal.
It’s not difficult to see the heady themes this film traffics in, nor its timeliness: with journalism and truth under attack in the Times of Trump, the story goes that when Spielberg got a hold of this script (by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer), he fast-tracked the project and got the casting department working immediately so that it could go into production as soon as possible. They were able to assemble a murderer’s row of talented actors while scoring the coup of getting both Streep and Hanks. Sarah Paulson, Matthew Rhys, Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, Bradley Whitford, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Alison Brie, Michael Stuhlbarg (who seems to be this year’s Most Visible Player—he’s also in fine form in Fargo Season 3, Call Me By Your Name and The Shape of Water), Bruce Greenwood, Jesse Plemons, and Zach Woods. Such a deep bench has made for some unintentional tie-ins: there’s the Mr. Show reunion of Odenkirk and Cross, the real-life husband-wife team of Letts and Coon, Coon and Stuhlbarg were in the same season of Fargo, Odenkirk and Plemons are both alums of Breaking Bad (and Plemons has also been in Fargo). Bruce Greenwood plays McNamara and has also played JFK. Amazingly, all these people get moments to shine, little solo parts that show why they were cast. But not to knock awesome sequences where multiple characters are talking to, at, and over one another in a frenzy of research and work, because those scenes sing too.
It will come as no surprise that Streep outshines everyone. Streep’s impeccability tends to get taken for granted these days. She’s always so good, it’s her default state, and for her to be noticed now requires something outsized like a new accent or an unexpected genre turn (still waiting for her to do an A24 art-horror film). She is amazing as Kay Graham, a woman who, though the paper has been in her family her whole life, never expected to find herself in the position of running it, as well as being responsible for the livelihood of all its employees. Streep’s best moments are silent, microexpressions and body language, deft little touches that speak so much about being a woman in what used to be perceived as a man’s world. Her Kay Graham is not a feminist firebrand from the onset; as she explains (and Sarah Paulson underlines in her standout scene putting her husband [Hanks] in his place), she had to find that take-charge persona, that voice, under the trappings of the roles she had played and was expected to play in those decades: daughter, wife, hostess, socialite. She plays that uncertainty and trepidation flawlessly, heartbreakingly. And then to see it bloom into confidence and resolve makes the result so much sweeter.
Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski occasionally go for a very direct statement with some shots, as with Graham about to enter a bank’s boardroom, female secretaries barred from entry, or when she descends the steps of the Supreme Court, drawing reverential gazes from the women lining her path. It may not be subtle, but it’s effective, and paired with John Williams’ score, it hammers home emotionally, as well. There’s also another exquisite sequence where Kaminski frames Graham in a shot surrounded by men leering like vultures as she makes a pivotal decision none of the men feel she is qualified to make.
The film is also a love letter to the glory days of the newspaper industry, with loving, almost fetishistic shots of typesetting, pneumatic tubes, giant printers, and rotary phones. One sequence features The Important Article being handed to the copy editor, whose first move is to strike the first sentence. Harsh but accurate.
The Post does feel like a great group project that everyone involved felt was important. While it’s got those aforementioned heady themes to address, it doesn’t trample over its characters to make those points. It happens naturally and serves as an inspiration definitely needed in a time when the value of truth is somehow being questioned by small minds who are loud and boorish.