Is it possible for a movie to be too timely?
Though it’s set in the early 1970s and considers a freedom-of-the-press Supreme Court case involving coverage of the Vietnam War, The Post couldn’t be a clearer affirmation of the Fourth Estate in the Donald Trump era—unless, possibly, it showed Richard Nixon tweeting his hatred for the media rather than spitting it into the phone in distant long shot, as director Steven Spielberg shows here.
At the heart of the story are the Pentagon Papers, an expansive overview of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam that recognized the futility of the war, but was ignored by sitting presidents up to and including Nixon. The New York Times initially published excerpts of the report against the government’s wishes, but The Post focuses on the dilemma faced by Washington Post owner/publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) over whether or not to follow the Times’ lead, especially after the attorney general orders the newspaper to stop publishing its series. Bradlee is itching to publish, but Graham—who recently took over the family business in the wake of her husband’s death and is in the midst of a tentative public offering of the company—is not so sure. Another factor? Some of those exposed by the papers—including Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who commissioned them as Secretary of Defense and then sat on them—are close family friends.
It’s not only a knowledge of all this history that makes the outcome of The Post a foregone conclusion. The filmmaking itself immediately tells you that this is going to be an All the President’s Men-style salute to the press. The movie opens with one of the field reporters for the Pentagon Papers on the ground with troops in Vietnam, and Janusz Kaminiski’s close, docudrama camerawork observes all the guns being cleaned and loaded before slyly settling on a typewriter that’s sitting in the front seat of a Jeep. Here’s the real weapon, the shot implies.
Much of The Post reaffirms this in even less subtle ways. Standing amidst his disheveled reporters, Bradlee declares, “We have to be a check on their power!” The Capraesque finale involves a Post employee quoting aloud, to hushed onlookers, from the Supreme Court decision in their favor. I think even Trump could grasp the movie’s message. And that may be the driving motivation for Spielberg and company when all is said and done. There are worse ways for an elder statesman of American cinema to spend his latter days than to thumb his nose at a sitting president who has thumbed every appendage he has at American tradition and civility.
Thankfully, though, the movie has another layer, one that puts Streep front and center. The Post is also the story of one woman’s feminist awakening, as we watch Graham rouse herself from a life of suspect tradition and protective comfort to one of risk, purpose, and meaning. Streep traces this transition stirringly, without ever putting her foot on the gas pedal in ways the rest of the movie does. Soft-spoken and deferential, Graham is initially talked over at a board meeting that she should be running. That experience and others like it eventually move her to carve out space for herself, albeit tentatively. Rather than go heroic, Streep emphasizes what a monumental shift this is for Graham by placing hesitancy at the heart of the performance. There is a wonderfully tense scene in which Graham must announce, during a phone call, her final decision about publishing further excerpts from the Pentagon Papers. Also on the line are multiple men—all her underlings in corporate structure, but not in behavior, which is made clear by the bullying way they try to sway her. When she states her decision—when her voice, finally, must be heard—she still stammers and pauses, as if she’s talking herself into it. She may not sound like the tough corporate bear pounding on the board table, but nevertheless she still wields her power.
Streep emphasizes what a monumental shift this is for Graham by placing hesitancy at the heart of the performance.
Spielberg aids Streep’s performance with a series of sharp blocking choices, including having Graham continually bumped by passing men, either in the newsroom, at board meetings, or cocktail parties. I also liked two bookending moments that work the opposite way and involve staircases. In the first, Graham walks up the steps to the New York Stock Exchange to ring the bell as the paper goes public, and she passes through a crowd of young women delighted at the side of a female business owner. This is echoed later when Graham leaves the Supreme Court and walks down the courthouse steps, winding her way through an equally admiring female throng.
And so The Post, which settles in nicely amidst Spielberg’s more staid, adult dramas of recent years (Bridge of Spies, Lincoln), has a visual wit that shouldn’t go unnoticed. And it ends on an especially cheeky note that looks ahead to the Watergate scandal. It’s also on the nose, perhaps, but it registers less as an “I told you so” touch and more of a real-world variation on one of those Marvel, end-credits “stingers.” The Post looks ahead to the abuse of power that was to come later in the Nixon years, while making it clear that we’re in real danger of such governmental overreach happening again.