There’s topical, there’s timely, and then there’s “The Post,” which feels less like a historical thriller set in 1971 than it does an exhilarating caricature of the year 2017. While Steven Spielberg’s latest film rivetingly dramatizes the publication of the Pentagon Papers (and eloquently unpacks the consequences of their dissemination), “The Post” wears the Nixon era like a flimsy disguise that it wants you to see right through.
That’s not to take away from Ann Roth’s ratty and exquisite period costume design, or to detract from how immaculately set decorator Rena DeAngelo recreated the smokey thrum of the old Washington Post newsroom. It’s certainly not to diminish Meryl Streep’s fraught and powerfully grounded portrayal of the late publishing scion Katharine Graham — she hasn’t been this good since “Adaptation,” or maybe even “Death Becomes Her,” if ever.
On the contrary, it’s just to emphasize the extent to which “The Post” unambiguously uses the past to reinvigorate our resistance to the present — to stress that the film exists for no other reason. This is a movie that couldn’t be more relevant if it had been set last week, or tomorrow; it’s a movie by someone who desperately wanted to address the world’s current (and concurrent) crises, but knew that it would be foolish to attack the problem head-on.
“The Post” also feels like the work of someone wracked by a personal responsibility to confront this demented moment in time, someone who knew that future generations would judge him for not transforming his enormous platform into something of a pulpit. Spielberg is an artist first and a wealthy executive second; no one in the entertainment world — not even Trump — has such direct access to our collective imagination. He was born with the rare power to reach directly into our hearts, to grab us by our throats, to distill our worst anxieties into digestible sentiments and churn our despair into something worth cheering for.
Only nine months passed from the time that Spielberg read Liz Hannah’s first draft of the script, to the time that he integrated John Williams’ score into the final cut of the film, but “The Post” doesn’t feel so urgent because it was rushed into production — it was rushed into production because it feels so urgent. In a year full of accidental Trump movies, this is the first one that’s completely on purpose.
An effective and worthy prequel to “All the President’s Men,” “The Post” begins in the thick of the Vietnam War, where U.S. military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) has only a typewriter to protect him. He reports grim news to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who promptly turns around and tells the American people that the fight is going in their favor — that more of their sons ought to die for the cause. Ellsberg knows that the Johnson Administration is systematically lying to both citizens and their Congress alike, and he has 22 years’ worth of secret government documents to prove it, but he can’t publish them on his own.
Cut to five years later. The Washington Post is a local paper that needs to become something bigger if it’s to survive going public. It’s been eight years since former socialite Graham inherited the business from her husband, becoming the de facto publisher after her husband committed suicide by shotgun, and she’s a bit shaky at the helm. A fiercely intelligent woman in a world of swaggering men who leer at her like she’s an unattended purse, Graham still feels like one of the girls — she cowers before executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) as though he’s her boss, and maneuvers between the gender-segregated rooms of a cocktail party with an ambidextrousness that alienates her from both sides of the house. She’s a silent observer in her own boardroom, letting advisors Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts) and Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) do all the talking.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
And then, while the newsroom is still reeling from Nixon’s decision to bar them from covering his daughter’s wedding, a skittish young woman wanders into the office and drops the story of a lifetime on a random reporter’s desk. The New York Times has it too, and they publish first, prompting Nixon to obtain a federal court injunction in a preemptive effort to protect his own secrets — secrets that were far more important to him than the First Amendment. This puts the Post in a Catch-22: They can’t hold the government accountable if they don’t have a newspaper, but what’s the good of having a newspaper if you can’t hold the government accountable? As if having to decide the fate of her company weren’t enough pressure, Graham suddenly finds herself having to decide the fate of her country as well.
Once upon a time, a movie about the Pentagon Papers could have been framed as a cautionary tale, but now it only makes sense as an unabashed crowdpleaser. In that context, Spielberg is naturally the right director for the job. A master chef preparing an entire feast inside a pressure cooker, Spielberg shoots “The Post” like every shot was delivered to the studio on a deadline, and the result is a film that combines the spartan clarity of hard journalism with the raw suspense of an Indiana Jones adventure. His film simmers with liberal indignation, only boiling over at the very end, and the days leading up to Graham’s decision are chaos told with clockwork precision.
Hannah’s script, polished by “Spotlight” screenwriter Josh Singer before production, does a magnificent job of setting up the stakes and identifying the key players, while subtle gags about line editing punctuate all the rousing displays of righteousness. Tom Hanks watches over the whole thing, playing Bradlee as a salty pirate who plunders for scoops, while the rest of the stacked cast — from Sarah Paulson Jesse Plemons, and Zach Woods, to Bob Odenkirk as star reporter Ben Bagdikian — each strike the right note of theatrical sincerity. By this point, nobody should need to be told how to act in a Spielberg film, though anyone who wasn’t sure could just follow the tempo of Janusz Kaminski’s camera, which rattles through the Post’s office corridors like it’s careening along a length of rusted train tracks. Newsrooms are always hilariously frenetic in the movies, but there are parts of “The Post” where it’s hard to tell if you’re watching Spielberg or Scorsese.
Needless to say, this is a movie that refuses to let anything get in the way of its own movie-ness. Emboldened by how beautiful it looks, “The Post” isn’t afraid to be playful with the past, even if that makes it less of a time capsule than a funhouse mirror. It’s “Mr. Spielberg Goes to Washington,” smirking where Frank Capra preferred to shout (this is as funny a movie as its director has ever made, most of the jokes characteristically hinging on someone being flustered in the middle of a frenzy).
“The Post” works as a history lesson, but its priorities are clearly sorted by their relevance to the crises we’re enduring right now, the need for a free press being first among them. Few films have so acutely traced the triangular relationship between journalists, sources, and subjects, and even fewer have so palpably expressed the personal cost of maintaining that sacred dynamic. One of the most intriguing subplots concerns Graham’s friendship with McNamara, and how difficult it would be for her to publish something that would ruin someone close to her. Spielberg leaves too much on the table between the two characters, especially in a film that earns the right to breathe for a few seconds, but Streep shines in these scenes all the same — this is Spielberg’s first female-driven film since “The Color Purple” in 1985, and the actress is eager to make up for lost time.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Paralyzed and uncertain where most of her recent characters have been as confident as cartoons, Streep embodies Graham as a rich woman who’s slowly discovering her real worth. On the surface, her performance is about compartmentalizing between what’s easy and what’s right. But there’s more to it, another element that makes “The Post” feel like such a movie of the moment: Graham is trying to figure out how to look at (and perhaps even love) a man who’s done awful things. For some viewers, that detail might seem prescient; for others, it will regrettably feel like the stuff of personal experience. Regardless, “The Post” offers profound testament to the idea that America only works when all people are granted the voice they deserve. It only works when everyone is held accountable, and everyone can only be held accountable when the press is free to pursue the truth. In a movie that contains at least two of the best scenes that Spielberg has ever shot, watching Streep stumble across that truth makes for one of them.
Nixon is a pivotal character, but he’s sheared down to the parallels he shares with Trump — his voice is heard exclusively through the leaked recordings on which he admits his crimes, blacklists individual outlets, and tries to cover his tracks. Spielberg couldn’t be more obvious if he just played the “Access Hollywood” tape. But obviousness is precisely the point; this is an unsubtle movie for an unsubtle world, one that recognizes how speaking truth to power is more effective when people can hear you.
Nobody needs to be reminded that history tends to go in circles, but “The Post” is so vital because it captures the ecstasy of trying to break the chain and bend things towards justice; defending the fundamental tenets of the Constitution hasn’t been this much fun since “Hamilton.” If we’re lucky, the film will feel like a relic in 10 years; if we’re not, it might be relevant again in 20. Today, when it matters most, “The Post” is essential because it stares down cynicism with a smile, because it enshrines the fact that governments only see journalists as a threat when they have something to hide. And, of course, because it separates the value of journalists from the horrors they uncover, allowing us an unalloyed appreciation for how their work can change the world. It’s all there in the film’s other all-time Spielberg moment, as Bagdikian sits down at his typewriter right as the printing press groans to life in the basement and the whole building starts to heave. He can feel the earth moving under his feet, and so can we.
“The Post” opens in theaters on December 22nd.