The Post (12A)
Dir Stephen Spielberg, 116 mins, starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk
Steven Spielberg’s technical mastery and narrative skills are such that even if he was making a film about Tom Hanks on a weekly shopping trip to his local supermarket, it would still probably seem intensely dramatic.
The Post is an embroiled and complicated story about how The Washington Post came to publish the “Pentagon Papers” (leaked documents revealing the US government’s lies about the Vietnam War.)
Much of it takes place in offices, drawing rooms and dining rooms. There are no chases, no fights, no romantic subplots. Other than in a Vietnam-set overture in which we see US state department military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (who later “leaked” the papers) when he was embedded with US troops, no guns feature either. Nonetheless, this is a thriller with a breakneck tempo. It makes for very rousing viewing.
The Post manages the feat of being nostalgic and topical. Although it is set in the early 1970s, the references to a bullying president trying to ride roughshod over the media and to mislead the American public have an obvious contemporary resonance.
One inspiration here is the political thrillers Alan J Pakula made 40 years ago (The Parallax View and All The President’s Men). Another is newspaper dramas like Park Row or The Front Page in which enterprising reporters and doughty editors go to extreme lengths to get the scoop.
In the period in which the film is set, bankers are already questioning the point of “serious” newspaper journalism. “Quality and profitability go hand in hand,” heiress and publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep with very big hair) tries to tell the financiers planning to take The Washington Post public. They’re very sceptical about such an idea and are “skittish” anyway about having a woman in charge of the company.
Hanks gives an enjoyable performance that rekindles memories of both Walter Matthau and Jason Robards as the Post’s editor, Ben Bradlee, a grumpy, sardonic but idealistic figure who loves the newspaper business. “My God, the fun!” he exclaims as the stakes are raised and the plot thickens, as if this is all some great game.
Streep’s Katherine “Kay” Graham is the society hostess type, part of the Washington elite and close friends with many of the politicians the Post is trying to investigate. She plays the character in very sly fashion, showing us just how cleverly Graham outmanoeuvres all the chauvinistic bankers and politicians who dismiss her on the basis of her gender. She is in a world in which the men discuss the “important” subjects at the end of dinner while the women are left on their own to gossip about their husbands and social arrangements.
It’s telling that when Hanks has his first scene with Streep, at a breakfast meeting, the filmmakers shoot it with very little cutting, just letting the two distinguished stars get on with it.
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The Washington Post has an obvious inferiority complex about the much better resourced New York Times. It’s a “little family paper” which can’t even get a reporter into President Nixon’s daughter’s wedding. “Anybody else tired of reading the news rather than reporting it,” Bradlee laments when, yet again, the Times beats the Post to an important story.
Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kamiński do their very best to make the newspaper business seem cinematic. We get the familiar shots of pages being typeset and of gigantic printing presses slowly and inexorably cranking into gear.
We see bundles of newspapers being delivered at dawn and there’s a wonderful shot of a group of reporters and executives standing outside a kiosk on a breezy day, reading a first edition of a broadsheet even as pages billow and blow away in the wind. Kamiński’s camera prowls restlessly through the Post’s newsroom.
Much of the newspaper work shown here is banal – a case of following the “breadcrumbs”. We see gnarled old reporters making telephone call after telephone call in pursuit of a source. In one excruciating scene, a correspondent using a payphone fumbles desperately with the coins and pens in his pockets as he tries to speak to a key contact.
Speilberg gives even the most mundane moments an unexpected fervour. The camera will slowly zoom into Kay Graham’s face as she makes a crucial decision about whether or not the Post will publish. John Williams’ dramatic music will make the moment seem all the more fraught.
There are lots of Hitchcock touches here too. We see Ellsberg stealing away the Pentagon Papers from a safe and taking them through security in a briefcase, which is shown in ominous close-up. Vital documents are delivered by mysterious messengers in shoeboxes or collected by journalists who book the documents their own seats on planes.
In Schindler’s List, Spielberg showed us a little girl in a red coat, symbolising innocence amid evil. There’s another little girl here who looks in on the antics of the adults – Bradlee’s daughter selling lemonade to the reporters who’ve come to work discreetly on the Pentagon Papers in her father’s front room.
The screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer sketches in its main characters’ private lives without distracting from the business in hand, which is securing and printing the leaked documents.
We learn about Graham’s late husband and about her friendship with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), Secretary of Defence during the 1960s, who comes across here in much the same way as he did in real life in the Errol Morris documentary, The Fog Of War. (That’s to say, sympathetic and sinister at the same time.) The script also includes frequent references to Bradlee’s ambivalent friendship with JFK.
In the canon of the best recent newspaper movies, The Post is the equal of Spotlight – and may well emulate its success at the Oscars. It underlines Spielberg’s continuing ability to entertain us even as he holds up a mirror to the less attractive side of American history and politics.
Spielberg being Spielberg, The Post gets a bit corny at times. He can’t resist throwing in glib late references to the Watergate break-ins, as if he planning a sequel which will examine yet further the dirty dealings in the Nixon White House.
Late on, the film strikes a self-congratulatory note about how bravely and honourably all of its main characters have behaved in protecting the free press and democracy. It is far more fun earlier on, when the journalists are behaving almost as furtively as the politicians whose dirty secrets they’re trying so hard to expose.
The Post hits UK cinemas on 19 January.
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