The Post - This Pre-Watergate, Post Fake News Movie Rocks
Dir: Steven Spielberg
Starring Meryl Streep, Ton Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys, Zach Woods, Tracy Letts
The Post reminds us all of what a lean, economical filmmaker Steven Spielberg can be. Not only did he just begin working on it this past May, the film he delivers in December is note perfect in it depiction of its early 1970s period, but bang to rights in it topical views that resonate so strongly in this current climate. And to top it all, he populates it with probably the best acting ensemble of the year.
We are in the newsroom of The Washington Post of the early ‘70s and whilst editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and publisher Kay Graham (Streep) are to be found, this is clearly not the paranoid thriller conspiracy inflected vision of Alan Pakula’s All The President’s Men. This is just before the full scale of the rot that had set into Richard Nixon’s administration has come to light. Indeed, this is concerned with the events that began to unravel such a rotten onion, as Bradlee – whose paper was always second best to The New York Times – seeks to publish the Pentagon Papers, a series of documents that unveiled the hypocrisy and failure of America’s by then long term involvement in Vietnam.
It’s easy to see what Spielberg and his oft-leading man Hanks saw in the project originally. It is a paean to idealism and very firmly American values, First Amendment and all that. But whilst elements of sentiment do seep in around the edges, all involved – the director in particular – are concerned to simply make this thrilling. There’s a five way phone conversation in the middle of crucial events – surely, one of the dullest things you could ever imagine on screen – that is absolutely riveting, and beautifully executed, in which action and character converge in ways you would never imagine of such a potentially dull piece of staging.
As ever, Spielberg demonstrates his visual mastery, but as he gets older, he knows two major things better and better – how to find the core and the heart of a story, and how to let his cast do the work for him. It’s almost become passé to acknowledge how good Streep is – but it’s also something that is impossible to deny, her performance not only tied up with the moral quandaries and hurdles of publish and very likely be damned, but also facing up to her position of becoming a powerful woman in a time when women didn’t have that kind of power. Hanks meanwhile, has never been more Jimmy Stewart, relishing every stand that Bradlee takes, completely believable in his own ideology coming face to face with the harshness of Nixon’s reality. In a nice touch, Nixon plays “himself” with Spielberg’s movie employing actual tape recordings of the ex President, rather that delivering such a juicy role to a mere actor. (Good thing, after all, that Nixon was such a stickler for illegal recording!)
That said, in the rest of his cast, there are no “mere” actors. Everyone from Paulson to the always excellent Greenwood to Plemons to Whitfield excel, none more so that a post-Saul Odenkirk as the journalist who worryingly sets events in motion.
There are weak elements of course – an opening sequence in ‘Nam feels unnecessary and the very end feels like a unwanted punchline (which we won’t reveal, nonetheless). And there’s a moment in the middle before the presses roll which feels like an opportunity to let several of the supporting cast have their “moment”, something that comes across as a touch too schematic to really satisfy.
But then the presses do roll – and Spielberg brings us not just the look and feel of these massive hunkering machines of yore coming to life, to define life, but practically the smell of the ink as well.
Ultimately, The Post is a remarkable movie, full of energy and vitality and aggressive point of view. Strangely, the one thing it never feels like is personal filmmaking. But it certainly feels like necessary filmmaking.