Government power run amok. Journalistic ethics facing overwhelming odds. Corporate interests and politics fighting to hold back the truth. Meryl Streep. Steven Spielberg. Tom Hanks. The Post seems like it was grown in a lab designed to win awards.
And it’s a really good movie. The story of how The Washington Post fought to publish The Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of secret government documents about US involvement in Vietnam, is incredibly important, especially where we are in 2018.
As I sit here in my hotel room in Washington DC, watching cable news listening to the President of the United States saying he wants to make it easier to sue for libel, a chill runs up my spine. A similar chill happens each and every time President Nixon appears on screen in the film.
Spielberg smartly uses Nixon’s own words, taken directly from the infamous tapes, showing a silhouette in the Oval Office as we hear the president in his own voice talking about how they need to shut down the New York Times and Washington Post. It’s similar to how Good Night and Good Luck used actual footage of Joe McCarthy, and the effect is equally as good.
Hanks and Streep are also at the top of their games. It’s unfortunate that any Streep performance feels like an obligatory Oscar-nomination, because in this case it’s deserved. However, in trying to give trailblazing Post publisher Katharine Graham a cinematic character arc, they sort of gut her. She begins the film as a sort of wilting flower, a socialite running the paper but maybe over her head when butting heads with lawyers and bankers. She overcomes sexism and self-doubt to make these historic decisions. . . and it’s just simply unbelievable (and not really based in reality). But as a film and a performance, it works incredibly well.
Hanks is also great, though perhaps not as good as his last collaboration with Spielberg in Bridge of Spies. In that film, Hanks played the relatively anonymous James Donovan. But as The Post‘s legendary editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, you can’t help compare him to other on screen depictions of him. Specifically, you draw an immediate comparison to Jason Robards in All the President’s Men.
The real Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee, from the Smithsonian’s Portrait Gallery
Perhaps the biggest complaint I have with the film is that as much as I enjoyed it, I spent more than half of my time wishing I was watching Errol Morris’s The Fog of War or All the President’s Men. I also felt like I was watching a sort of strange prequel to All the President’s Men, as this film ends [Spoiler Alert?] the same way that film begins– a security guard at the Watergate noticing duct tape on a door and a break-in at Democratic Party Headquarters. Perhaps because this particular moment in history has been so well covered already, it adds to the feeling that we’ve sort of “been there, done that” with this subject matter. However, because we seem to have failed to learn from the mistakes if forty years ago, we are doomed to repeat them now.
What is different and refreshing, though, is how this particular story is told. Spielberg’s choice of casting here is fascinating, filling the supporting cast with actors best known for their comedic backgrounds: Bob Odenkirk and David Cross (wha?!?) along with Zach Woods never get to be funny, but they also show off their dramatic side. In another strange bit of casting coincidence, Jesse Plemons also shows up as the Washington Post‘s chief counsel. This again just feels odd and takes me out of the movie, as I keep thinking about Breaking Bad and Mr. Show crossovers rather than what’s happening on screen.
But perhaps the best piece of casting is Bradley Whitford, who should probably be remembered as this last year’s greatest on-screen villain for his performances here and in Get Out. As a smarmy banker, complete with bow tie and slick hair, Whitford is the on-screen personification of mansplaining and the evil face of capitalism. It is exquisite and he and Streep play off one another so well that they enhance each others’ performances.
But the most important piece of this film is its message. While it perhaps over-romanticizes the press (one loving montage of the paper being printed and going to press was enough, but sure, we’ll take more?), the message of how important a free press is could not be more important. While this isn’t the best movie currently in theaters, it is perhaps the most important.
3.75 out of 5