Few directors have the ability to make audiences believe cinematic fantasy better than Steven Spielberg, and his latest fairy tale certainly doesn’t tarnish that track record. The Post is movie magic at its best, transforming a rather bare-bones, lackluster story into a gripping tale of David vs Goliath courage — old-fashioned entertainment complete with valiant heroes, menacing villains, and black-and-white values as plainly defined as the print of the newspapers it so admires. It’s not nearly as important (or contemporary) as it wants to be, but expert staging, a brisk pace, and the kind of Hanks/Streep-brand performances that audiences swoon for demands attention, and gets it.
Depicting the 1971 trials and tribulations of The Washington Post owner Katherine Graham and Editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, as the former tries to keep her inherited family business solvent (and relevant), while the latter doggedly pursues the newly-leaked Pentagon Papers after being scooped by The New York Times, The Post splashes in the kiddie pool of politics and journalism. While that may not sound overly exciting, the script merges these plotlines into a ticking timebomb that approaches thriller territory. Will Graham be able to convince investors to purchase stock at the company’s IPO despite the White House’s looming threats over publishing sensitive material? Will Bradlee finally get his hands on documents detailing the government’s lies about U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam? And more importantly, will he finally get to stick it to his big rival? News team — assemble!
That Steven Spielberg evokes excitement about such things is a tribute to both his skill and the sharp dialogue from writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. Sure, the events of The Post matter in a historical sense, but how do you get viewers numb by daily scandal actually interested in a coverup that now feels so quaint? The answer is crackerjack direction as lean and focused as anything the director has done. Every shot seems composed for maximum effect, and actors’ movements are staged to keep momentum consistently gaining. A scene that simply involves a group of people sitting on the floor and reading is abuzz with a swirl of motion, with periphery characters weaving their way through the frame while eager arms jut out from the edges, passing sheets of paper back and forth in giddy excitement as the camera swoops between them. Again, they’re just reading, and it’s electric.
The Post shows again how adept Spielberg is at manufacturing chaos, but also how he understands the ebb and flow of story. (Well, mostly. The eternal optimist can’t resist adding a few sappy moments that would have made Frank Capra proud, but they are over relatively quickly, and certainly don’t bog things down.) When necessary he slows the proceedings and lets his image linger, often on the faces of performers who fill in any blanks. Hanks brings humorous mugging to go along with his usual integrity, but Streep is the real star here. She carries the weight of multiple themes on her graceful shoulders, finding a way to express both power and insecurity in struggling with being a woman faced with monumental ethical decisions in an environment dominated by men. It’s a performance that communicates much in its subtlety, anchoring everyone else around it.
She admirably keeps all the balls in the air, but probably shouldn’t have had to. There are times when The Post wants to be about every hot-button issue currently being recycled in contemporary media. Women’s equality, fake news, and a clear allusion to another tyrant in the White House each get hammered home from overly simplified viewpoints, rarely given the time to make any poignant statement beyond what’s already been repeated and lampooned to death. (Interestingly, the film might have buried the lede, reminding me more of the lies exposed by another recent whistle-blower, and how that revelation, once deemed so impactful, has also dissipated into irrelevance.) Regardless, because it stretches itself too thin in reaching for significance, the story winds up a mere fluff piece better suited to summer beach reading than the front page.
While trying very hard to make its story appear to be about the sanctity of the free press and the integrity of journalists by occasionally having characters deliver speeches spelling out the sanctity of free press and integrity of journalists, a general lack of nuance makes any of that hard to take seriously. Characterizations that wouldn’t be out of place in a comic book deflate any gravitas for the Big Lessons Spielberg seems to be trying to teach us. Hanks never misses a chance to crack the gruff quips required of any seasoned news man based in Metropolis, and though Streep’s humble portrayal of underlying strength waiting to burst forth is skillfully done, that it occurs in a setting of extreme privilege mutes the inspiration derived from overcoming her obstacles. That the personal risk here is the loss of ownership over a major news outlet in the capital of the United States sounds like Tony Stark problems. All the while, Sauron watches from his tower, furious at these upstart Hobbits.
Get past the skin-deep nature of the headlines, however, and there’s still some damn fine fun to be had in the Arts & Entertainment section. The Post moves along as briskly as a dime-store detective novel, but without feeling cheap. Steven Spielberg displays his considerable talents on a small scale, and the deftness is refreshing. With simplistic values belonging to an era when telling the difference between the good guys and the bad guys was as clear as day and night, The Post offers old-fashioned storytelling that may not reflect the times, but certainly scoops it.