It’s not been uncommon for Steven Spielberg, in his directorial career, to stack projects and get through two or three films in a very contracted amount of time. The man himself admitted that by the time he came to make Saving Private Ryan – immediately following The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad – that he was near-exhausted, and working heavily on instinct. An instinct that would win him a Best Director Oscar. Who knows if history will repeat itself.
After all, instinct is clearly at work in his new film, The Post, too. This is a movie that even in January, Spielberg wasn’t clear he was going to do, let alone this year. Instead, he was making Ready Player One (due in March), and whilst that movie has been in post-production, Spielberg announced, shot, edited and completed The Post. Looking at the subject matter, it’s hard not to appreciate the urgency. It’s also clear fairly quickly why it appealed to Spielberg, and how it suited his style.
For this is one hell of a cocktail. There’s a mix of shady American government cover ups and lies, pressure on media outlets competing with one another, further pressures on media ownership and the ramifications of that, and the strive to land a front page story of note (and not one, as the film coincidentally points out, about a wedding).
This time, though, the story is set in the early 1970s, focusing on the true tale of the leaked Pentagon Papers, that set a chain of events in place that would have serious ramifications for the US presidency. These were the documents that detailed how the American government had deceived the public and Congress over the Vietnam War, documents that – crucially – the government didn’t want out in the open.
Originally published by the New York Times (whose part in the telling gets surprisingly short shrift), the story of The Post instead focuses on The Washington Post, under the stewardship of America’s first female newspaper publisher Kate Graham, and its editor Ben Bradlee.
Those roles are filled by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, and both put in high quality work. Streep in particular excels, with her character facing huge choices well out of her comfort zones, butting heads against a board that don’t think that she should be anywhere near her job. She’s the standout in an excellent cast, and I’d suggest it’s her best performance in many, many years. It’s layered, deliberate and plays heavily with insecurity. Hanks is more understated, and there aren’t too many colours explored of his determined editor, keen to go with the big story. But it’s Tom Hanks, and he convinces within seconds.
Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay also finds space for the broad ensemble to flourish, too. In particular, Sarah Paulson’s take on Tony Bradlee and Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian are strong, whilst Bruce Greenwood effortlessly conveys gravitas as Robert McNamanra.
If you don’t know these characters beforehand though, that does go to one of the problems with The Post. The denseness of its story doesn’t permit a lot of space to prime outsiders as to what they’re getting, and it’s a movie that certainly benefits from some base familiarity with the events. It’s a very talk-y film, one that – and this is a good thing – assumes intelligence from its audience. But it’s not too forgiving if you can’t keep up. It’s not an audit on how clever you are, either: I do think that the otherwise very good script doesn’t quite keep its footing for the full two hours, occasionally dragging just a little.
For Spielberg, meanwhile, The Post if anything feels closer in approach to his sorely-underrated Munich than any of his other recent output. Munich isn’t the most accessible of his movies, but it’s a really strong, urgent and impactful piece of work. The Post plays a little broader than that, but it drips with the same attention to deal, the same period feel, and a camera that often refuses to be grounded as Spielberg goes exploring the nooks and crannies of the story. I don’t think it’s quite at the level of Munich, but the comparison does cement in my mind why Spielberg was the right person to tackle this story.
It’s an often-fascinating, gripping drama, this one. A love letter to the importance of journalism, and the need for holding government to scrutiny, The Post is very much a movie made by and for grown-ups. One that ultimately turns to face a big blockbuster crowd for its big moments, shifting tone a little as it does. It’s noted already as an early forerunner for the Best Picture Oscar, but I’d suggest that’s reaching just a little, given the immense calibre of some of the movies we’ve seen this year. Yet it’s still a very well made, very well performed and engrossing film. And Meryl Streep really is sensational in it.
The Post is released in the UK in January.