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‘The Post’ (review)

Produced by Steven Spielberg,
Kristie Macosko Krieger, Amy Pascal

Written by Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Alison Brie,
Carrie Coon, David Cross, Bruce Greenwood,
Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson,
Jesse Plemons, Matthew Rhys, Zach Woods
Michael Stuhlbarg, Bradley Whitford

In a time where the leader of the free world is openly in rebellion against the press, it is no wonder that Steven Spielberg rushed to get the shooting script for The Post immediately after the 2016 election.  Producing this major film with a star-studded cast list in such a speedy manner gives us the opportunity to go into the holiday season with a movie overtly designed to keep audiences talking about the freedom of the press and the responsibility they have to educate the people about the truth, no matter what the powers-that-be may want to hide.

Though a nationally-renowned newspaper today, The Washington Post was originally a small family-run local paper. When a cover-up was brought to light through The New York Times publishing of the highly classified Pentagon Papers, it set off a battle between journalism and the federal government. In spite of an injunction levied against the Times preventing them from publishing any more of the damning documents, Post owner Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep) and executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) go to print with the papers and end up as co-defendants in the Supreme Court. With high stakes on each side, the decision to publish and the legal battle that followed forever changed the relationship between those responsible for the damage and those responsible for reporting its extent.

The ties to the current environment are impossible to ignore, and Spielberg leans fully into the drama of the situation. There is little nuance and no ambiguity as to which side the audience should champion from the start. This is clearly meant as a David vs Goliath tale of triumph, and who walks into such a setup with the desire to provide a balanced defense for the giant? Shades of gray morality are shunned here. This was the discovery of the multi-term collusion of government officials as high as the Office of the President to send American youth to their deaths in an unwinnable war, simply to save face. The unabashedly crusading tone equates true nationalism with the willingness to fight for honesty in a time where Americans were only starting to express sincere distrust in the actions of Washington operatives.

Being a period piece, the touches that show how far removed we are from that time are wonderfully nostalgic. From close ups of rotary payphones (honestly, just the existence of payphones) and clacking typewriters to the sheer amount of actual paper flying around the newsroom, we are reminded by set pieces how far away we are from this era.

Yet, the discussions and arguments are written in a way that they could be used to defend CNN, The New York Times, or MSNBC’s right to report today. Spielberg brought on the screenwriter from Spotlight to assist with the original script from first-timer Liz Hannah. While at times the overt nature of the message infantilizes the audience, overall the effect is a passionate call to arms for the media. The energy of the newsroom is rounded out by a phenomenal cast of supporting actors, including Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, and David Cross.

The Post marks the first time that Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks appear in a movie together. The two powerhouse veterans of film are at the top of their game with regard to their character acting. Meryl Streep in particular shows her skill in the way she pulls back when Kay is confronted with difficult decisions. As she anxiously looks at her notes during a board meeting, the fight between speaking up or letting someone else represent her interests plays across her face in the most honest of ways.

Just as reserved and resolved as Streep is, Hanks goes big with swagger and bravado as Ben Bradlee, providing a loud moral compass for Kay as she wrestles with the realization that the choice to print, to be in defiance of a Supreme Court injunction, and the very existence of the paper are all in her hands. Hanks plays into Spielberg’s designation of Bradlee as a crusader, but the film’s lack of narrative nuance is saved by the careful and quiet strength of Streep as she finds her nerve and resolves to side with the newsroom, no matter the consequences.

No one will go to see The Post and be surprised by the paint-by-numbers style of emotional manipulation. Yet this movie is not meant to be a message to those on the side of clandestine government operations that claim, justifiably or not, to protect its citizens.

This is a slick, well-produced love letter to the section of the public that has a stronger belief in the right of the press to serve the public interest through honest information, no matter how difficult the truth is to reconcile.

 

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