Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys
Runtime: 116 Minutes
The story behind The Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers – the history of the United States' political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 – arrived in the midst of a tremulous cultural and societal reshaping of the United States after the revolution of the 60s began seeping into the distinct paranoia of the 70s. The unravelling of over three decades of lies and manipulation across five presidencies throughout the ranks of power and control, leading to the attempted censorship of the press and placing the needs of the governors over those the governed (in direct contrary Hugo Black’s words following the Supreme Court’s ruling final ruling).
Its no coincidence that The Post has arrived now of all times, at a time where the very liberties of the press are facing forceful verbal contempt from forces of government power, with accusations and contradictory statements being waved off as “fake news” or defamed all together, and waiting out their decisions with similarly wrongheaded assertions that their astonishingly apathetic outlooks will look better when given some perspective.
But the relatively short production history behind the film, following a 9-month production period as the Liz Hannah screenplay entered the hands of Steven Spielberg, hasn’t dampened the ambitions of its makers one bit. This is an urgent and highly significant story that we need to be reminded of now more than ever.
For such a hasty production, the stars (both literal a figuratively speaking) were able to align to let this story be told with the right people in the right way. Spielberg isn’t as infallible or entirely respected in his later years as he should be in the popular consciousness, but when he’s called upon to bring something to the table through acts of pure craftsmanship and dependency, he’s still one of the best visual storytellers in the business.
For something that feels like one of his more muted dramatic pictures, The Post steadily transforms into a tense and fantastically exciting accomplishment as the final act comes around. As the day of publication arrives, and key decisions are made over phone calls and behind closed doors with wavering uncertainty and duty that will decide the fortune of a country, as well as that of The Washington Post and its company heads.
Spielberg’s work with long-time collaborators Janusz Kamiński and John Williams manage to make a screenplay, covering a period of 10 days and the individual key decisions and researched moments with the key players leading up to the publication, an electrifying display of earnest vindication and justification for the actions of the press to inform the people, and expose the truth as protests and discontent grow in the outside world. This is a film where nothing stops moving. Williams’ score is expectedly rousing at points, and the film looks fantastic. Covered by masters and elaborate moves and sweeps through the printing machinery, the passing of documents and the motions of figures through the scenes.
If there are even major criticisms to be had, they’re of the strange way in which it chooses to depict Richard Nixon through the windows of the White House over recorded phone calls. Although it may be read as an act of distance to spread to film’s intentions beyond its time and bounds to contemporary threats currently residing there as of the time of writing, it might be one of its few strange visual missteps. As well as the film’s general hurry to wrap up the immediate fallout of events.
The performances are universally outstanding from one of Spielberg’s strongest ever ensemble casts – and this really is an ensemble piece, regardless of the film’s marketing of titans Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks as the top-billed icons. The standouts include Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Michael Stuhlbarg and Sarah Paulson, who in a single scene elevates herself above the figure of an onlooking housewife with terrific delivery.
The pairing of Hanks and Streep add to an authoritative and dynamic screen presence, it’s quite frankly astonishing that this is their first time working onscreen together. Hanks is predictably terrific as executive editor Ben Bradleem, the hard-working, desk leaning, sleeve rolling operator and orchestrator of events who is still struggling to keep the paper afloat following its already rocky standing with the presidency, and the paper on the verge of going public.
But the standout performance and character is Streep’s newspaper heiress Katharine Graham. Streep is able to remind everyone of exactly why she’s been so revered for so many years, she’s a gracefully gripping performer and sells every moment as the socialite thrust into a position of power she is being constantly undermined of by the men surrounding her. Visually blocked out at points, she is a part of the film’s feminist war cry as even in the face of possible destruction to humanely manages to compose herself in company as the strain of her past pulls her down, culminating in the film’s most powerful image as she descends the steps of the Supreme Court through the eyes of hundreds of women protests in silent solidarity.
Predating the world of All the President's Men but experienced through the lens of one of Hollywood’s greatest living auteur filmmakers, The Post isn’t quite perfect with a final scene that will almost certainly prove too much for those not on board with its sensibilities by that point. But this is a powerfully made and performed picture, and a timely reminder of how the world has and hasn’t changed since it occurred.