Here is another one of Spielberg's Serious Movies, another among many that ticks off all the boxes of effective drama while being just a little bit contrived, in that very Spielbergian way. The Post very much preaches to the choir -- many lines of dialogue come across as expressly designed to get the audience to applaud in agreement. In the screening I was at, the audience obliged several times, either applauding or literally saying "Yes!" to the screen.
None of that diminishes this movie's importance, or its significance. It would be tempting to call The Post the All the President's Men of the 21st century, except I would lay down significant bets that forty years from now people will not still be talking about The Post -- and they will be talking about All the President's Men, even then.
You can't fault Spielberg for trying, and that is perhaps an unfair comparison anyway -- because The Post is hardly a failure on any front. It tells the story of how The Washington Post became a national household name in news reporting after its decision to publish information from the Pentagon Papers in 1971, with a focus on its owner, Kay Graham, and her struggle with this decision. These papers revealed that not only then-current president Nixon, but every president since Harry S. Truman knew full well that a war in Vietnam was unwinnable; they lied to the public about it; and went ahead with it anyway. It would do well to note that includes John F. Kennedy, who was maybe not such a saint after all. For me, this has shades of Barack Obama being at the helm during the revelation of the NSA -- those who love given presidents find themselves easily overlooking terrible things they have done, or allowed to happen.
Nixon, of course, remains the worst of those who were incriminated by the Pentagon Papers, and his administration threatened legal action against newspapers publishing them. Spielberg smartly confines any screen time for Nixon to just the silhouette of him in a White House window, gesturing to recorded tapes of his ranting commentary on the proceedings. The Post is pointed about the newspaper standing up for freedom of the press while the White House threatened it -- sound familiar? -- and that, really, is what this film is about; there's no need to distract viewers with any presidential caricature.
The acting in The Post is as good as you're going to get anywhere, what with Meryl Streep playing Kay Graham, gradually finding her confidence as the one woman in any room, surrounded by men who feel they're doing her a favor by condescending to her. But, when her husband died, she inherited the paper, so the big decisions fall to her whether the rest of them like it or not. All of this plays out like a feminist sub plot, transparently contrived, but you can't help but cheer anyway. Streep can be largely credited for that.
She is paired with Tom Hanks as the editor of the paper, Ben Bradlee, basically the guy who is second in command under her but who makes the editorial decisions. These are two of America's greatest actors living today, and it's too bad they have never been paired before now; they work great together. The large supporting cast is rounded out by other great performers as well, including Sarah Paulson as Ben Bradley's wife (a little underused here, honestly, for an actor of her caliber); Alison Brie as Kay's daughter; Michael Stuhlbarg as the editor of The New York Times; Matthew Rhys as the man who leaked the papers; and Post reporters or Board members played by Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, David Cross and more.
The Post propels itself forward with an urgency clearly informed by the political climate we are currently in, strengthening its relevance. These issues are always relevant, of course, but The Post feels like a very deliberate reminder of what is at stake when it comes to attacks on the free press. That does beg the question of how differently it may have played, say, if it had been released three years ago. As with most Spielberg films, there is an unmistakable layer of emotional manipulation, of the sort that general lovers of movies won't even notice, and certain film snobs will regard with some level of contempt.
I, for one, fall in the middle of that spectrum. As moviegoing experiences go, The Post is a great one. It's both pertinent and entertaining, which is not always an easy combination. And Streep and Hanks have never been better, their performances alone being worth the price of admission.