Movie Review: The Post
By Matthew Huntley
January 9, 2018
“The Post” is the large-font, CliffsNotes version of the events surrounding a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision. It's tight, light, and mostly straightforward—a classic American drama interspersed with thriller elements and dry humor. Viewers are bound to walk away from it feeling informed and entertained, though perhaps not intellectually stimulated. Director Steven Spielberg gives the audience a frank, one-sided account of a noteworthy story in which all the dialogue sounds like it's coming off the pages of a screenplay instead of flowing naturally from the characters' mouths. It has a clearcut, liberal agenda, and it sticks to it without getting overly complicated. It's safe and easily digestible.
And why shouldn't it be? We have lived in a time, are living in a time, and will no doubt live in a time again when a movie like “The Post” serves a social and democratic purpose as well as an entertaining one. It reiterates what could be at stake if we ever allow those in high positions of power to let their egos and public images take precedence over truth and moral responsibility, and it's important to be aware of this, because we often forget such a threat exists. Of course, now I sound like one of the heroes from “The Post,” whose principles and love of freedom may not be immediately understood by all viewers, especially in this current political climate, even though we'd like to think they're shared by everyone. Luckily, and hopefully, “The Post” is here to help make them understand, but even if it doesn't, at least it's well made.
The film recounts the 1971 publication of “The Pentagon Papers,” the collective study initiated by the Department of Defense that summarized the United States' involvement in Vietnam between 1945 and 1967. The “top-secret” papers revealed, among other things, that four presidential administrations—Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson—intentionally misled the public regarding America's agenda and degree of meddling in Southeast Asia. It opens as Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a strategic analyst and former Marine Corp officer, accompanies soldiers into the jungles of Vietnam so he can assess the current state of the war, ultimately concluding the conflict is unwinnable. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) agrees, but McNamara, under pressure by the powers that be to maintain public support of the war, tells the press a different story, describing the situation as hopeful and on course for a U.S. victory.
Upon hearing McNamara's lies, Ellsberg takes it upon himself to expose the truth. He photocopies the Papers and gives them to a reporter at The New York Times, which then prints a series of scathing articles detailing the government's reprehensible actions in Vietnam. In response, the U.S. Department of Justice, at the insistence of Richard Nixon, issues a restraining order against the Times to prevent it publishing any additional Pentagon documents.
Amidst the ensuing battle between the Times and U.S. government, which quickly evolved into the Supreme Court case of “New York Times Co. v. United States,” The Washington Post, a small outfit compared to the Times, faces crises of its own. With low readership, the paper's first female publisher and president, Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), is attempting to take the company public, but she's uncertain she'll be able to convince investors it's worth it, not least because she's a woman operating in a man's world (this is 1971 after all). Kay must also bump heads with editor Benjamin Bradlee (Tom Hanks), a staunch liberal and outspoken supporter of freedom of the press.
Soon after the government silences the Times, the Post gets ahold of it own portions of the Papers and Graham and Bradlee wrestle with the decision to publish them. If they do, they'd be doing what the Times currently can't and would likely gain traction in the newspaper industry, although they too would face litigation and could potentially be forced to shut down or even go to prison. If they don't, they'd be compromising their integrity and not fighting to hold the government accountable for its actions, not to mention allowing it to dictate what the press can and cannot say.
If you're at all familiar with this particular event in U.S. history, then you probably know how “The Post” ends, but it's a testament to Spielberg as a storyteller and editors Michael Kahn (a longtime Spielberg collaborator) and Sarah Broshar that it's still able to maintain tension and energy throughout, as if the outcome is unknown. The film flows smoothly and coherently, nicely balancing the multitude of characters all wanting to call the shots on what The Post should do (the fine supporting cast includes Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons and Carrie Coon as various lawyers, Post staff members and government employees attempting to make their voices heard), and the speed at which they talk, and the brevity of the scenes, create a genuine sense of urgency. It's put upon the audience to pay close attention, because the film doesn't stop moving.
Liz Hannah and Josh Singer's screenplay, though not particularly ambitious, allows us to gain a strong sense of the high stakes, deadlines and competition involved in this era's newspaper industry, while Rick Carter's production design gives us access to The Post's physical operations, including the machines, materials and engineering involved in printing a paper back in the day. The result is us feeling included and caring about The Post's dilemma and its ultimate decision.
With that said, even though “The Post” is lean and concise, it's not especially subtle. Spielberg seems so focused on relaying the film's noble messages—the meaning of democracy; freedom of speech and of the press; equal rights and progression for women—that he overcompensates narratively just to get the points across. Much of this is in the dialogue (“If we don't hold [the government] accountable, who will?”; “What will happen if we don't publish? We will lose! The country will lose!”), but there are also some heavy-handed shots, such as Kay walking down the court house steps through a line of proud, on-looking women. Yes, touches like these make us feel good, but they push the film's agenda a little too hard, and it ends up losing impact, even feeling cheesy and artificial.
We also can't help but think the film was made just to be an awards season player. How could it not, given that Steven Spielberg is the director, it stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, and it touts left-leaning, patriotic ideals? As a Hollywood product, it's a tad too polished, so much that we notice. message
Nevertheless, “The Post” is functional entertainment, albeit not quite “essential.” It communicates its messages clearly, but I would have preferred Spielberg trusted the audience more and exercised greater restraint with regards to the content, focusing instead on pushing the envelope cinematically and narratively. Then again, given the current state of our country, perhaps “The Post” does exactly what it needs to in order to educate the masses. Maybe by the time the sequel comes out, which the ending of this film humorously sets up, its principles will already be accepted by the greater public, thus allowing the filmmakers to explore riskier means of storytelling rather than harping so heavily on fundamentals.