The Post Film Review
Seasoned actors and a veteran director make The Post a cause for celebration.
If the news, like Meryl Streep’s character Kay Graham says, quoting her father, is like ‘the first rough draft of history’ then the movies are its time capsules. When American movies take on historical events, as Steven Spielberg’s The Post does with the Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers, they do so with an air of finality, a kind of stamp that seals it as the definitive recreation. How long can you think about the sinking of the Titanic without picturing Leonardo Dicaprio’s frozen face sinking to the bottom of the ocean? Or of the Vietnam War without hearing Robert Duvall claim that he loves ‘the smell of napalm in the morning’? 2015’s Spotlight (co-written by Josh Singer, who wrote The Post with Liz Hannah) will likely go down as the definitive fictional counterpart to the exposé of the sexual abuse perpetrated by the Catholic Church.
Coming out at a time when the integrity of once-trusted publications is under fire, The Post is timely, and a very good film with an uplifting message. Which, all the more, makes it hard to swallow.
As much as Spielberg loves a spectacle, his latest is decidedly understated, and for good reason. Williams’ score in this one is mostly non-existent, with muted notes drifting in at tense moments like a shark’s fin slicing through the water. This tension is established by a rival publication (The New York Times, who kept getting the scoop one step ahead of The Washington Post) running the story before the Post, or a fumbly reporter dropping coins at the payphone trying to make an important call (Ben Bagdikian, played by Bob Odenkirk).
These moments are exciting, even if Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s script soaks with the ink of names, numbers, dates and a literal slush pile of information that reporters have to piece together, page by page. The movie is mostly large swathes of talking and a few Spielbergian speeches, which at times makes it feel like a cast of talking heads espousing exposition.
How do you get around something like that? If you’re one of the biggest directors in the world, you cast two of the best actors. Making up for the wordy script, as head of the paper, Streep lends Kay Graham a highly nervous, anxious energy. Watch her hands and she’s always lacing her fingers together or twisting them around a roll of newspaper. We first see her wake in bed in a fright and she spends the remainder fighting to remain composed as pressure to publish and governmental orders not to press at her from both sides. As Ben Bradlee, executive editor, Hanks is all swagger and excellent posture. Hanks has always been a performer who picks an odd, at times irksome, affectation and sticks with it until it defines his character. Sometimes it’s an exaggerated accent (Forrest Gump), sometimes a shaky hand (Saving Private Ryan) and in this case it’s all in the twisted shapes his mouth is making, plus a barking growl when pushed to the edge.
As good as The Post is, with its meticulous production design by Rick Carter and some of veteran costume designer Ann Roth’s finest work, the positive message it upholds about the integrity of journalism and the press’s fight won against a duplicitous government makes it a tricky sell at a time when things seem to have slid backwards. The film documents the scrummage between the press and the government, two powers shoving each other back and forth with each of their integrities at stake.
When the press wins, you leave the theatre feeling elated—but what are we supposed to do with that elation? The press, like most industries today except the tech industry, is in trouble. In Australia we saw Fairfax media’s massive cuts leave a lot of hard-working journalists without secure staff jobs, while the US is still reeling from social media’s alleged role in the presidential election. Journalist Michael Wolff’s insider account of the goings on in the White House has been heavily criticised for its lack of sources and ‘Fake News’ is the American Dialect Society’s word of the year. What The Press does, and indeed, what the movies can do, is give us reason to celebrate past victories, even when things look pretty bleak outside the movie theatre. Basking in the meticulous control of a director like Spielberg, the still zany, experimental and wonderfully entertaining performances of seasoned screen actors like Streep and Hanks, the understated script work of a newcomer like Liz Hannah and a proven talent like Josh Singer, we can be inspired to think that, if there was reason to put hope in journalism once, there’s reason to do it again.