‘The Post’ Review: Steven Spielberg Spins a Stirring Op-Ed on Journalism and Feminism
[This is a re-post of my The Post review. The film expands nationwide on Friday, January 12th.]
The benefit of being Steven Spielberg is that when you’re at the top of your game and you amass a group of collaborators who are all at the top of their game, you’re going to come out with a strong film through sheer force of talent. His latest, The Post, isn’t particularly revelatory or game-changing, but it’s a group of artists all reminding us why they’re among the best in the business, and all working towards a powerful story about the importance of journalism and the continued struggles of women in the workplace. It’s a movie set in 1971 that’s very much about 2017, and Spielberg eloquently speaks to our current moment even if sometimes the words are incredibly on the nose.
In 1971, United States military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) is able to get the Pentagon Papers—a far-reaching study that showed the government across multiple presidencies systematically lied to the American public in order to continue the Vietnam War—into the hands of Washington Post reporters. The Post is in a moment of upheaval. Editor-in-Chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is at loggerheads with owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), who is in turn facing a difficult position after the decision to publicly offer shares of the company on the stock exchange. When the Nixon Administration gets an injunction against rival The New York Times on publishing the Papers, The Post is put in the tenuous situation of publishing a groundbreaking story that could bring down the full wrath of the U.S. government.
In 2017, we live in a time where the President has been whining about “fake news” seemingly every damn day since he took office, and American trust in news sources has been whittled away to where only 27% of Americans say they have a great deal of trust in newspapers. Where The Post really shines is in showing the nitty-gritty of journalism, although doing it within a compressed timeline and narrative that lends itself to exhilarating speeches, ticking clocks, and cutting out the boring parts like people not returning phone calls and other countless dead ends. But it’s a film that shows in the journalism profession, everyone takes their work seriously and no one is blind to the stakes of any story. It’s a searing rebuttal against an imagined “agenda” by showing the real work that goes into serious journalism.
If The Post had been made ten or maybe even five years ago, focusing on the journalism angle would have been enough, but Spielberg’s movie goes further to show the rampant misogyny surrounding Graham. The journalism element may speak to our present, but the misogyny is clearly born out of the 2016 election and how sexism factored into the treatment of Hillary Clinton. Although Graham isn’t a Clintonian figure, there’s no missing that she’s a woman in a job that’s traditionally given to men and there’s no shortage of men trying to undercut her. While the inequality women have faced is nothing new, we’ve at least reached the point where we must start to confront it even if that confrontation is long overdue.
The movie also seems aware of its own shortcomings in addressing feminism and the availability of good roles for women. In a lesser movie, Sarah Paulson, one of the best actresses working today, would simply be Tony Bradlee, supportive wife of a male lead. But The Post gives Tony a scene to help elucidate Graham’s role and have a female character speak clearly and powerfully about the kind of risks a woman has to take where a man can skate by on the privilege afforded to his gender. Ben Bradlee may be the hard-charging editor, but the person with the most to lose is Graham.
And there’s probably no other woman in Hollywood better suited to playing Graham than Streep. Although some of her other recent roles have afforded her the chance to do the most acting (looking at you, August, Osage County), The Post lets her do some of her finest acting, using sly looks and reacting to tell us what we need to know about Graham. It’s a model of restraint, but she can quickly trade barbs when need be. There are plenty of strong actresses out there who exude strength, but Streep owns this moment. Watching her performance, I couldn’t help but think back to earlier this year when she won the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes and used her speech not to talk about the greatness of acting or even reflect on her illustrious career, but to speak truth to power and call out Trump for his cruelty. Streep isn’t one of the best actresses of all-time; she’s the best actress for this role.
Thankfully, she doesn’t have to carry the movie on her shoulders (although she could if she had to) as the entire cast is outstanding. You get a little Mr. Show reunion with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross both playing Washington Post reporters, but what makes The Post stand out is that every where you turn, there’s another actor you love doing the most with a minor role. Look, there’s Carrie Coon as the only senior female reporter! Look, there’s Jesse Plemons and Zach Woods as Washington Post attorneys who are afraid they’ve bitten off more than they can chew! Hey, there’s Matthew Rhys reminding me I should I really get around to watching The Americans! It’s the embarrassment of riches that only a director like Spielberg can get.
For his part, Spielberg seems well-attuned to the stakes of the time, and his regular group of collaborators serves him well for the most part although I’m pretty burnt out on cinematographer Janusz Kaminski blasting light through windows as if the characters live on the surface of the Sun. The movie is a model of competency, and although it also features unbridled earnestness over moral ambiguity, I can’t fault the director for his desire to speak to the moment even if he sometimes smashes us over the head.
The Post is a movie that is IMPORTANT, but it never feels self-satisfied or smug thanks to the talent of everyone involved. We all know why the people making this movie are doing it, and that the press for it will certainly revolve around current events. But what makes The Post more than topical is that Spielberg never loses sight of telling the best story. Yes, The Post speaks to the moment, but it’s through Spielberg’s voice that it speaks clearly and forcefully.