‘The Post’ Is Spielberg’s Ace In The Hole (Movie Review)

Leave it to director Steven Spielberg to once again turn a history lesson into an invigorating character study with potent relevance. The Post is another excellent movie from one of the most revered filmmakers of all time. A cast led by two of the world’s most well-liked actors is just one of the highlights in a film pushed into production rather quickly and has now arrived at a time when cynicism may be winning out against the drive to do good. At just under two hours, The Post has all it needs to recall a time when real battles were being fought over American liberties. It was great spending that time to see the talents of so many come together for a film that’s not only incredible to watch, but something of a reward to those who want to see what it means to find the truth.

I continue to admire the way certain biopics approach history, as The Post could easily be a full re-telling of how Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys in this film) leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, an area that’s been covered in social studies classes and TV movies. Instead, the script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer has a more compelling idea rooted in the perspectives of this story. Meryl Streep is Kay Graham, a wealthy widow who led her family’s newspaper, the Washington Post. Along with Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee, the tough as nails editor of the Washington Post, Kay will play an instrumental role in how involved journalists were in publishing articles focused on a cover-up and what they were up against by doing so.

Some of Spielberg’s best films come from the ways he can manage to put pressure on himself. While in post-production on his next movie (Ready Player One), he took on The Post; finding actors, getting the script re-worked a bit, and doing all else needed for a film designed to come out with the span of several months. The reasons behind this are pretty clear if you’ve been keeping up with the issues people have with many people currently in power and how clearly this story reflects on that. Spielberg has now taken that urgency and molded it into a film that never sits back with assumptions that the film will simply work on its own.

At 70 years of age, Spielberg shows no signs of slowing down and finds himself digging into the world of journalists with a clear sense of glee. As per usual, the Beard has brought Oscar-winner Janusz Kaminski to capture the atmosphere of these offices and newsrooms, and while I’ve had some issues with the familiar blown-out look that has defined a good deal of Spielberg’s films over the past couple decades, there’s something else going on here as well. While not grounded in docudrama-style realism like All the President’s Men, The Post does seem to be channeling a 70s feel with the various zooms and extended takes (not to mention a pure joy in the up-close look at the how the printing press machines operate). The reality may be a bit heightened, given the actors and their dialogue in a given scene, but it only adds to film’s overall drive.

Speaking of which, the drama of The Post is excellent in the way it goes after the pursuit of whether or not to publish. The film finds a way of making a more interesting question about the “should” than the “how” and the results mean finding another critical arc to delve into. It would be easy to let Hanks control the film as Bradlee, given how he’s head of the newsroom and orders various reporters and interns around, but this is once again where The Post finds a way to subvert expectations in a significant way.

I don’t have much of a need to call into question the talent of Meryl Streep, but it is sometimes hard to continually look so high at an actress when praise seems to come by default. The Post is the first time in a while that I won’t be questioning the need to nominate Streep for major awards. As Kay Graham, Streep plays up the identity of a determined woman finding her voice in areas dominated by men. Graham was in a powerful position during this time, but the film creates an arc that opens with her being talked down to by Bradley Whitford of all people, before realizing how necessary it is to call into question the motives of supposed friends she has, such as Robert McNamara (portrayed by Bruce Greenwood). In the midst of a film caught up deliberating the freedom and inherent legitimacy of the press, The Post doesn’t shy away from selling audiences on what kinds of people can make the big decisions.

That does not mean Hanks isn’t as endearing as he ordinarily is, even if he is playing a hardass. It’s another authoritarian role that Hanks is great at playing. Where other actors may play it too smug, Hanks never loses sight of how determination for what is right overrides his general confidence and attitude towards a given scenario. As a result, between him and some key turns of phrases (no matter how maudlin), The Post finds some moments that wouldn’t feel out of place in a sports film about an underdog.

Everything else presented is top notch as well. The supporting cast includes Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, a journalist who was vital in bringing much-needed information to the Washington Post. We even get a Mr. Show reunion, as he is joined by David Cross as a managing editor. Also on hand are Carrie Coon, Tracy Letts, Jesse Plemons, Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson and Michael Stuhlbarg. They all round out a great cast set to play to the rhythms of a hectic Spielberg production. Some characters are given short shrift, as the film ironically takes a big stance in favor of women, yet offers Paulson nothing to do as Bradlee’s wife, despite her prominent billing. And yet, the roles all add up as necessary to the cause, as The Post is working with a greater good in mind.

There is sometimes this strange drive to knock Spielberg for wearing his heart on his sleeve a bit too often, but I tend to find it hard to challenge a director that so often captures a feeling of movie magic, whether it be in one of his fantastical adventures or a straight-laced historical drama. For any sentimentality or moments that feel contrived in some way, I rarely tend to see them as overweighing the stories as a whole when there is so much professionalism and obvious passion put into them, let alone the artistry at work.

The Post has all the makings of a drama that captures what many look for in cinema for adults.  It finds a large group of professionals that have made a film about other professionals who did their job effectively when called to action. The movie also happens to be backed by a sense of purpose, and while I don’t expect one Hollywood movie to make a change, it does show just how fascinating and useful the art form can be. Not bad for another entertaining film from a cinematic master.

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