More than any director in memory, Steven Spielberg has transitioned from being a beloved American showman to the filmmaker who continuously pursues a conversation with our national conscience. In three of his four last films, Spielberg has looked to the past to commune with our present on a national scale—and often with the halls of power that preside over his audience. Lincoln was many things, including a clarion call to 2012’s sitting President Barack Obama to use soft power and a firm hand to do big things in a second term; and Bridge of Spies coincidentally or not came out just as relations between the U.S. and Russia began to frost over.
Now, with a sharp regard for the tortured relationship between a shady White House and a bullied, increasingly adversarial press, Spielberg’s The Post is so timely that its ironic, nearly 50-years-ago-setting chills to the bone. For here is a story juxtaposed during the reign of President Richard Nixon. Casting deep shadows with an even deeper camera focus on a paranoid Republican president paces his isolated West Wing cage, we glimpse a politician who struggles with facts and transparency, and who is never fully captured by Spielberg’s lens. Still, his presence is deceptively omnipotent. The clearly well-researched film was written before the latest of Nixon’s successors was sworn in, yet its echoes of our reality appear both intentional and drenched with menacing happenstance. Together, they mingle and combine into a reverberating cacophony of dread.
With plenty of fortuity, Spielberg’s next dispatch isn’t meant for the men who pull the levers of power, but those who are supposed to vigilantly watch them. Reaching back to a period where the media was cowed to be what author Tom Wolfe once called the “Victorian Gent,” most American journalists demurred to authority in the mid-20th century. And no authority is greater than the one in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee spends scenes in The Post waxing nostalgic about partying with Jack Kennedy while Meryl Streep’s Kay Graham goes to Bob McNamara for business counsel on what to do with those ever elusive Pentagon Papers.
It is a story about a reckoning between the press and power, and even in sequences most inclined toward a civics lesson, it is powerful stuff.
Set in 1971, The Post picks up after a requisite sequence about the ugliness of the Vietnam War. However, more than setting the stage, the prologue provides the impetus for Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) to grow disillusioned. Every year the war has dragged on, and he’s observed no change, much to the dismay of Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, Bob McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). So in the shadow of a new administration continuing to lie about the progress of the war, Ellsberg takes more than 500,000 classified government secrets that stem from a study ordered by McNamara: one that suggests the U.S. government was lying about losing the war for years. The public deceit even predates America’s intervention into the conflict during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.
Yet the cloak and dagger element of The Post is kept to a minimum. Acutely aware that he is trekking across territory that Robert Redford already precisely pioneered in All the President’s Men (1976), Spielberg is more concerned with the ethical dilemmas of the press than he is in the rare spy games. Eschewing too much of a retro return to ‘70s filmmaking techniques which he reveled in a few years ago with Munich, this has the classic gliding close-ups and intimate family life portraiture of traditional Spielberg dramas, but with the added intonation of doom.
Inside the walls of The Washington Post, which was still considered a “local paper” for the powerful and elite in 1971, the movie comes to life with a charming romance for the drudgery of day-to-day newspaper reporting. From the newsroom to the greasy pillars of black and white ink being shifted through vertical conveyer belts, it is a longing ode for the glories of old school news investigation, much like Tom McCarthy’s more somber Spotlight.
At the top of The Post’s gaze are The Washington Post’s executive editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and Streep’s exquisitely layered take on publisher Kay Graham. Whereas Hanks is reliably great, squinting his eye and relishing playing the king of begrudging skeptics, he also appears aware that he’ll be compared to Jason Robards’ pitch perfect take on Bradlee’s crusading cynicism in All the President’s Men. So while Hanks goes for a lighter affect, Meryl Streep dominates by playing a woman who is paradoxically intimidated by her authority.
By The Post’s account at least, Kay Graham is a woman who not only lives in a man’s world, but seems initially resigned to the idea that she is an interloper in it. Despite The Washington Post being her father and grandfather’s business, it was her husband who inherited it before his own death, and it is a paper that Kay now must defend from pernicious relatives and potential shareholders constantly second-guessing a woman’s leadership. It is in this context that Bradlee and Graham slowly come into possession of Ellsberg’s 500,000 Pentagon Papers. Suffering from an inferiority complex at The Post, this smaller paper could become a national leader after The New York Times is cowed by the Nixon administration. If they print, they can blow the lid off government lies… as well as face the complete vindictive nature of a president less than enamored with the law.
The Post is an opera in which the audience already knows how the trials and tribulations will end, yet nevertheless rekindles the horror of being lost in the woods, even if the trail out is much closer than any of the players realize. Evoking as much an existential crisis as a legal one, Spielberg relies on the intensity of his subject matter, and the prospect of Kay being told constantly she’ll lose her father’s company, to drive up the pressure while allowing both of his leads to breathe in his measured portraits of threatened domesticity.
Streep is again phenomenal and somehow crafts yet another textured and revelatory turn as a woman who must grapple with the power she wields, making her final decisions that much more devastatingly satisfying. But it is especially her acceptance that she must embrace the barrier between power and press, and the cooling of her relationship with McNamara, that is the most fascinating among the film. Rather than simply being a tale of the press bringing a corrupt government policy into the spotlight, it is a timeless battle about access in the fourth estate. There is also something amusing about Greenwood, who is still the best Hollywood JFK from Thirteen Days, now playing Kennedy’s most desolate of men.
The film is clearly a celebration of the press and its role in checking a potentially criminal presidency. Both a prequel of sorts to Redford’s movie and to our own realities of gloomy headlines in The Washington Post and elsewhere, The Post is clearly an Important film with a Capital “I.” Yet more crucial still is how cathartically gripping it is at recalling a tale of truth vs. power, objectivity vs. access, which nearly a half-century later takes on a kind of mythic quality about American character. Presented with the reverence of a campfire caution, yet featuring the most light-footed and deft of Spielberg’s touches in recent years, this is the strongest of his trilogy of American history passion plays and also one of the year’s best.