In the mode of a comforting heated blanket, Steven Spielberg brings his typical skill and strength of direction to the field in The Post, his straightforward telling of The Washington Post‘s Pentagon Papers coverage from Nixon-era America. Fronted by the intimidating duo of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, this is all-American filmmaking.
It is 1971 and US involvement in Vietnam is as domestically unpopular as ever. A disillusioned civilian commissioned to work on a government research project into the war decides to smuggle out the report’s damning conclusions, and leaks them to The New York Times. Their blockbuster stories clarifying the depths of misdirection and fabrication to which Nixon’s administration has sunk are huge successes, but land them in legal competition with the very state.
Meanwhile Katharine Graham (Streep) is the isolated owner of The Washington Post, patronised by her all-male board and pandered to by her editor, Ben Bradlee (Hanks). They share an idealism about the purpose of journalism, but differ in their prioritisation of the paper’s long-term financial future. Against this backdrop the newsroom strives to get hold of the Pentagon Papers and match their peers. This is essentially a story of press freedom and its importance, a testament to the First Amendment, and perhaps only an American production could be simultaneously so patriotic and so condemnatory of its own head of state.
Graham is a conscientious, nervous owner, and her deliberations regarding the future of her family enterprise are played out in Streep’s glances and mumbles and beseeching air. It is, needless to say, another tremendous performance from a living Great. So, too, is that of Hanks as Bradlee, a hulking man who perpetually looms, limping through rooms and impressing the fervour of his beliefs on most conversations in which he participates. Hanks and Streep have many scenes together, and are routinely convincing as they defer to each other and subtly or obviously press their advantages home.
The supporting cast around them is similarly professional, with small-screen luminaries like Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson and Matthew Rhys oiling the cogs of Spielberg’s smoothly running machine. As the story escalates and the Post‘s risks run higher, we are lulled by the sheer Hollywood-ness of it all; Spielberg quite simply knows the ropes and the tropes to create an engaging drama.
The film’s politics are not quite so finely honed however. Alongside an almost painfully timely central message of political skepticism, The Post seeks to moralise on the shameful history of the newspaper business, and indeed the stock market, from a gender perspective. The rectitude of its position is in no doubt nor the accuracy of its grievance; moreover, the condescension endured by Graham throughout is sensitively handled. Yet the late turnaround we are intended to buy into from Streep is simply too abrupt, and too neat. Similarly, sequences in which she finds herself suddenly in the company of the marginalised women of America are hackneyed and trite.
The Post wears its right-mindedness on its sleeve, and is somewhat limited by its convictions. The class of Streep and Hanks is not dimmed too drastically, but the weight of its conclusions does feel overwrought.