Spielberg’s latest is both a historical crowd-pleaser and a galvanizing call to action.
The way they lied, those days have to be over. If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?
When Steven Spielberg read The Post, from first-time scriptwriter Liz Hannah, he knew he had to make the film, and make it immediately. Even for the famously tireless director who had doubled up before (Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in 1993, War of the Worlds and Munich in 2005), this would be a tough one: prep, shoot, and edit a political thriller with a huge ensemble in six months, while simultaneously in post-production on March’s Ready Player One? Spielberg was so enamored with (and a little bit terrified of) how sharply The Post spoke to the present moment, it would be like racing against time without being able to see the clock. No one can predict what the climate will be like one month from now, let alone six. Would the film be the canary in the coal mine, or a mournful wail as we pass the point of no return?
Beginning in the middle of the Vietnam War, we first meet consultant Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) on a hair-raising night patrol. He’s contributing to a report commissioned by Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) tracking the history of America’s involvement in the conflict, in hopes of convincing Washington of what everyone on the ground already knows: it’s futile, and has been since the beginning. The seven thousand-page report, officially known as the “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force,” comes to the brutal conclusion that thousands of Americans have died under false pretenses, as administrations going back to Eisenhower have been meddling in an unwinnable scenario and then lying to the American public to save themselves from humiliation.
Meanwhile, we also meet Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the publisher of “local paper” The Washington Post, which is about to go public so it can remain solvent. The Post has been part of her entire life; her father owned it, who then left it to her husband; after the latter’s suicide, it passed to her. And as a woman, there is no shortage of people who believe she doesn’t belong in her position; her only allies are her chairman of the board, Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), and her editor/”pirate” Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). The Post largely toils in obscurity but its staff longs for more, including Graham, who believes that a commitment to quality and journalism in the national interest is the best way to grow.
The story of the film, then, is how Graham and Bradlee seize the opportunity that falls into their laps one fateful day: to publish their own report on the Pentagon Papers in the wake of the Nixon administration’s injunction against the Ellsberg’s first contact, the New York Times. Liz Hannah’s script (with Spotlight’s Josh Singer contributing to the shooting draft) reminds us repeatedly of what’s at stake: not just the future of the Vietnam conflict, or the lives of “our boys,” but the 1st Amendment itself. If Nixon is allowed to bully the Times into submission, the press is no longer free. How should The Washington Post respond? “Would you go to prison to stop this war?” Ellsberg asks hangdog Post reporter Ben Babdikian (Bob Odenkirk). “Theoretically,” he replies, but there’s nothing theoretical about it.
Bradlee’s grouchy idealism is infectious, but Graham’s decision is fraught with peril — she could lose their brand-new investors, the entire company, and even end up in prison. Streep’s performance is nothing less than brilliant, conveying Graham’s deep-set insecurities through every hand shake and vocal quaver, her eyes constantly searching for a way out of every room. She gets ignored, talked over, and talked down to. But there’s also a clear throughline to her own point of no return that establishes her as a feminist trailblazer, fighting through her own nagging vulnerability so women today can be fearless. The film’s climax comes on a five-way conference call with Graham pulled in as many directions and her longtime friend McNamara in her own backyard, and Spielberg hangs just long enough on a closeup of Streep for a thousand emotions to play simultaneously: a long-underestimated woman, stepping out to the ledge, and seizing her moment.
Hanks is a good, if Proto-Hanskian, counterweight to Streep (it’s crazy that this is the first time they’ve worked together), especially with the ghost of All the President’s Men’s Jason Robards hanging over his shoulder; as irascible as he is, there’s real affection there between him, Graham, and the entire newsroom — a frighteningly deep ensemble. One of The Post’s most entertaining elements is how it serves as a showcase for the Peak TV All-Stars: not just Rhys and Odenkirk, but Carrie Coon, Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson, and a glorious Mr. Show reunion for Odenkirk and David Cross that’s played absolutely straight. Michael Stuhlbarg completes a Best Picture nominee hat trick. Bradley Whitford will likely have played a villain in two. By the time Jesse Plemons and Zach Woods show up as harried lawyers, I leaned over to my wife and muttered, awed, “Who’s not in this?” It’s simply delightful, and speaks to not just Spielberg’s draw on short notice, but the power of the film’s story that these actors would drop everything to contribute to it; even if most of them get just a couple of scenes, everyone gets a standout moment.
That urgency manifests itself in every frame of the film. Spielberg’s instincts for staging and camera movement are as sharp as ever, especially considering how little prep time he had, and his custom of not doing actor rehearsals. A film that’s mostly about people talking into phones has rarely felt so alive. There might not be a single scene that’s just shot/reverse shot; cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s team (including camera operator Mitch Dubin, who Spielberg has relied on for 20 years now) is constantly in motion, pushing in, gliding around tables, picking up an action in the corner of the frame and following, enhancing the dramatic tension with deceptively complex gestures. Similarly, Michael Kahn’s editing is steady but propulsive.
I should probably talk a little bit about John Williams, however. His score for The Post is spare; its most interesting moments come early in the scenes of Ellsberg swiping the original documents, built on a sturdy woodwind melody and subtle electric guitar, but the film doesn’t really return to that. And when compared to similar recent efforts like Lincoln or Thomas Newman’s work on Bridge of Spies, it suggests Spielberg has either long moved past a reliance on memorable musical themes, or has simply lost interest in the kinds of stories that benefit from it. Truth be told, the 85-year-old composer hasn’t delivered a top-to-bottom “iconic” score in over a decade (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, perhaps, though I also love the credits suite from Munich). And I should be clear, that’s not what The Post needs. My affections for Williams are boundless. I just want to find out if he has one more knockout in him.
It would be arrogant to declare that The Post is a magic bullet that will bring people to their senses and inspire the country to rally around a free press. In our balkanized media landscape, that kind of mass galvanization simply doesn’t happen anymore. Perhaps, though, the point of making it is simply to plant a flag, to say “This matters,” to give a warning of history repeating itself, and a reminder of how things ended last time and how they might again. In the film’s final minutes, Graham (perhaps too-cutely) hopes that their now-nationally significant newspaper, riding high in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, won’t ever again have to go through something like this. Just one year later, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein would be covering the Watergate break-in, the stone that started an avalanche and ended a presidency. A house built on shifting sands will eventually collapse; it takes courage to dig out the truth no matter where it leads. The Post isn’t a mere civics lesson — it’s a call to grab your shovel, too, while you still can.