When I tell people that my favorite director is Steven Spielberg, I tend to get a lot of eye rolls from fellow movie buffs. He’s considered too popular or mainstream, he plays it too safe and isn’t edgy or artistic enough, he’s too sentimental and melodramatic, his only interest is in spectacle, etc. Cinephiles love to hate on the man who is probably the most successful (critically and commercially) filmmaker of the last fifty years, and are often quick to point out alternative artists who they feel has a similar career but does everything better (Christopher Nolan frequently pops up in these discussions). But from now on when anyone brings up these hackneyed Spielberg criticisms I will simply point them to one scene from The Post and ask them to show me another filmmaker who could make that scene any better.
About two-thirds of the way through The Post there’s a phone call. Ben Bradlee, the chief editor of the Washington Post, has been working feverishly with his reporters combing through the Pentagon Papers. The Papers, which detail the many ways in which the government lied to the American people across multiple administrations in order to sell the idea of the Vietnam War despite knowing that it was unwinnable, were leaked to the Post after the New York Times stopped publishing articles on them following an injunction from the Nixon government forbidding them from covering any more of these classified documents. Bradlee gets on the phone with Kay Graham, the owner of the Post, needing her permission to proceed with publication. People keep joining the conversation, from lawyers to chairmen to board members, all leaning on her to shut the story down. Graham listens to their arguments, weighing countless considerations: the recent public stock offering of The Post which might collapse if the government comes down hard on them, the reputation of her paper as a small town rag but with the opportunity to get one over on the goliath Times, the real chance that she and Bradlee might go to jail for violating the injuction, the possible end of her personal relationships with Washington insiders should the paper turn against them, the family legacy of the Post that was dumped on her after her husband’s suicide, not to mention ideas like journalistic integrity, newspapers as a public good, and speaking truth to power, plus a healthy dose of feminist frustration at the way men have talked over and around her for her entire professional life. It’s a scene that’s as suspenseful and thrilling as anything in Jurassic Park, with the tension built entirely out of stellar directing and acting, and only able to succeed thanks to the masterful storytelling throughout the film to that point that made the stakes of Graham’s decision so clear and weighty. And while there are plenty of great moments and social commentary worthy of cheers in The Post, it’s a mark of an immensely talented filmmaker like Spielberg that a phone call partway through the film is the one that stands out so strongly in my memory.
The Post is one of those movies that is designed to feel timely despite being a period piece, and some people will be turned off by the mere fact that a movie is trying to offer commentary on the current state of the world. But this is not a new phenomenon. Entertainment of every sort has always done this, and The Post has picked a valuable topic for discussion. We live in a time where trust in news agencies is at an all-time low, the phrase “Lamestream Media” has already come and gone to be replaced with cries of “Fake News,” and we now have the President distributing “Fake News Awards” to organizations which publish unfavorable articles about him. One of the pillars of a democratic society, a free and open press, is routinely mocked, derided, or ignored, not to mention suffering financially with changes in technology and media consumption. The Post is a none too subtle reminder of the value and importance of the press, of journalists and reporters, and of the institutions responsible for providing the truth to the public, even when it’s a truth that those in power don’t want exposed. The movie does a fantastic job not only of setting the personal stakes that Kay Graham is going to have to deal with on that important phone call as well as the stakes for the country, but also at making it clear that despite the looming image as Nixon as the film’s villain the newspaper is out to get him. Bradlee and Graham know that the importance of the Pentagon Papers goes way beyond any personal feelings about the President, because they’ve seen and covered the horrors of the Vietnam War and the public deserves to know the truth of how they’ve been misled by many administrations in order to support a war the government knew they could never win. There are no witch hunts here, just the desire to let the public know the truth.
Beyond just advocating for the rights of a free press, The Post is a tense and compelling movie in its own right. The film is anchored by another excellent performance from Meryl Streep. She makes Kay Graham highly conflicted and complex, a woman who is conscious of her unique position and the family legacy she finds herself almost unwillingly in charge of yet who has collected personal and professional relationships that she stands to lose should the Post publish the Pentagon Papers. We watch as events transform her from a woman afraid to speak her mind in the board room because she’s so used to being dismissed by the men surrounding her into a feminist leader making tough decisions and understanding what she represents to those looking up to her. Streep’s performance is wonderfully subtle, and it’s a treat to watch the characters emotions and internal struggle play out on her face rather than through some grandiose speech. Tom Hanks has a much easier and familiar role to play as the paper’s chief editor Ben Bradlee, though he brings an important weight to the role as Bradlee argues for the publication of the Papers. The rest of the newsroom and other supporting characters don’t get much of a chance to shine although familiar faces abound, but the bulk of the time is spent on Graham and Bradlee, or else building up the stakes so we understand the depth of the challenges they face.
The Post doesn’t have a particularly flashy script, which works to its advantage. It doesn’t have rousing speeches about ethics, it doesn’t have fiery confrontations or emotional breakdowns. It’s not a mystery to be solved by intrepid reporters chasing leads towards an ultimate surprise revelation. Instead, what it does is smoothly and smartly build tension by providing context in a way that feels natural to the story. This is not the story of the Pentagon Papers, which would be focused on the New York Times who initially broke the story and did most of the legwork. Instead this is the story of a pivotal time in US journalism history told through the lens of a turning point in the history of the Washington Post. This gives the story a tighter focus with fewer important characters and more drama. In that vein it’s very similar to another superb Spielberg film, Lincoln, which chose to show us Abraham Lincoln through one specific, but extremely important, event in his lifetime. Sprawling biopics that cover a subject from birth to death have a place in cinema, for sure, but I almost prefer these “slice of time” films. By sacrificing breadth they allow us to dive deeper into a particular moment in history. They may require more work from the audience, and a greater knowledge of historical events, but when they’re as finely crafted as The Post they can work on their own without those things.
Ultimately, though, this is Spielberg’s movie through and through. He has said that he felt this was a story that needed to be told today. We live in a time when the President calls the news media the “enemy of the American people.” The Post is intended as a reminder of the necessity of the press, and its duty to the people. But it also acknowledges the real challenges newspapers face, from changing times to financial burdens and the compromises that sometimes have to be made. It would be easy to see The Post and convince yourself that it’s just another battle in the war between the “liberal” media and Trump. But The Post argues that the war is bigger than any one President or newspaper, but is instead between the forces of democracy and the people who would use their power to silence the truth. But on top of being an important and timely statement on the state of democracy, The Post is an example of masterful filmmaking by the best in the business. It takes a craftsman of Spielberg’s level to build a story that makes crucial points but which works on its own as a feat of drama and art. Few other artists can strike that balance in storytelling, and I can’t wait to see what he brings us next.