A film review by Craig J. Koban January 20, 2018

RANK: #10


2017, PG-13, 115 mins.


Meryl Streep as Kay Graham  /  Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee  /  Tracy Letts as Fritz Beebe  /  Alison Brie as Lally Weymouth  /  Carrie Coon as Meg Greenfield  /  Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian  /  David Cross as Phil Geyelin  /  Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara  /  Sarah Paulson as Tony Bradlee  /  Jesse Plemons as Roger Clark  /  Matthew Rhys as Howard Simons  /  Michael Stuhlbarg as Eugene Patterson  /  Bradley Whitford as Fritz Beebe  /  Zach Woods as Daniel Ellsberg  /  Pat Healy as Phil Geyelin  /  Kelly AuCoin as Kevin Maroney

Directed by Steven Spielberg  /  Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer

The new historical political thriller THE POST deals with the true story of how the journalists of The Washington Post and New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, classified documents that dealt with previously undisclosed information about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War as far back as the Truman administration.  The papers revealed that the government systematically lied to both Congress and the American people about enlarging the war effort in Vietnam, even though they realized it was a losing effort at best.  

Of course and at its time of publication in 1971, the Pentagon Papers greatly ruffled the feathers of the Richard Nixon White House, who in turn vehemently tried to shut down the newspapers for good and, in the unfortunate process, spit in the face of the First Amendment.  Thankfully, the Supreme Court thought otherwise, and The Post, Times, and other papers across the land were given the green light to further pursue this story.  Freedom of the press won.. 

This is arguably one of director Steven Spielberg's most stylistically restrained efforts of recent memory, but it's also his most engrossingly watchable films in well over a decade, a time that saw the 70-year-old filmmaker making middling to serviceable films like THE BFG, WAR HORSE, and BRIDGE OF SPIES.  Not since 2012's LINCOLN and 2005's terribly undervalued MUNICH has Spielberg so lovingly crafted a period film that speaks towards multiple timely themes that still feel relevant to the present day.  That, and Spielberg manages to make a historical film - via a crackerjack script from Liz Hanna and Josh Singer - that rarely feels like a dry historical lecture.  THE POST confidently dives headfirst into its period in question by giving the audience just enough expositional particulars to the point where uninformed viewers can make sense of everything without being sermonized to.  That, and Spielberg and company pepper the film with an embarrassment of performance riches and fascinatingly realized characters that give the story a sense of dramatic urgency and suspense; Spielberg's direction is refreshingly and purposely spare here.  Like the great political potpoilers of yesteryear, THE POST lures viewers in with crafty writing and rock solid acting. 



THE POST will draw obvious and  mostly worthwhile comparisons to ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, another drama about journalists uncovering political wrongs - the Watergate break-in that subsequently destroyed the Nixon presidency.  Although THE POST serves as a shrewd preamble to Watergate (it's referenced during one key moment) and works well as a prequel, of sorts, to that Allan J. Pakula film, Spielberg also wisely understands that the tale of the Pentagon Papers is also a narrative that shows the limitless importance of investigative journalism as a large source of powerful influence.  Much like the very recent Best Picture winning SPOTLIGHT, THE POST is an inspirational yarn that portrays the gutsy and intrepid newsmen and women of their respective time periods as heroes and catalysts of change.  In our current "fake news era" featuring the current Commander-in-Chief waging war of words with journalistic institutions on social media, the lessens of THE POST seem as timely now as they've ever been before: the fight for free speech and uncovering political wrongs is the only truth worth fighting for.   

THE POST also serves as an endlessly intriguing behind-the-scenes expose on how a financially struggling newspaper found a renewed lease on life and become relevant again.  Opening in 1971, the film introduces us to a Washington Post that was nearing bankruptcy and had its entire brand being entrusted to the widow of its publisher (that committed suicide), Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), who faces a daily grind and burden of wondering what time would be best to take her paper public.  Dealing with the mostly condescending advice from her underlings (none of which feel she's a worthy successor to her dead husband, nor well equipped to run a newspaper), Kay finds some solace in her relationship with Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), who's working relative overtime to ensure that other rival papers don't scoop him left and right.  Just when things appear grim for The Post a relative bombshell is dropped in their lap in the form of 30 years worth of leaked Pentagon Papers from disillusioned White House military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Ryhs).  Ben is salivating at the prospect of publishing the papers, whereas the deeply cautious Kay is worried that any legal fallout with the government could cause irreparable harm to the future of The Post.   

The New York Times was actually the first publication to write about these leaked documents, but when they were slapped with a cease and desist order from the Nixon administration Ben felt the need to capitalize on what he felt was a golden opportunity of scoops.  What makes THE POST so absorbing is the seesaw battle of wills of all the players involved.  Kay's relative inexperience makes her vulnerable to outside influence, especially with her advisor (Tracy Letts), who calmly cautions her to not take any action that could jeopardize the paper going pubic, which has been under the threat of financial ruin for too long.  Ben, on the other hand, is a doggedly persistent force that's primarily driven by journalist ethics and his unwavering desire to report on things that the public has a right to know about.  The rich back and forth dynamic here between Kay and Ben gives THE POST a surprisingly level of nail biting suspense, even though we all know how history turned out.  The film cautiously reminds viewers that the business of newspapers involves making business decisions that oftentimes fly in the face of defending the greater principles of free speech.  It's hard to champion free speech when there's no paper to use as a conduit of it. 

All of the tension in THE POST is derived from the clashing of those harboring purely economic interests versus those that simply want to use the paper to get the truth out there for an already polarized and troubled nation.  For the bean counters, tales of massive government misconduct are all for naught if reporting them equals the end of the paper and the imprisonment of journalists that report on it.  Nixon becomes an oppressive person always lurking in the shadows here; in a stellar creative move, Spielberg shows him in long shots through White House windows, in partial silhouette, using actual tapes of the president's voice throughout to help sell the illusion of authenticity.  On the other side exists Ben and his loyal and story hungry legion of reporters that are fully prepared for any dire consequences of going up against the White House.  THE POST pitch perfectly captures the euphoric thrill of pursuing a story for these professionals while juxtaposing that against the omnipresent threat of a government that could squash them at a moment's notice.  Rather democratically, Spielberg never frames Kay's advisors that argue against the publication of the Pentagon Papers as scapegoat villains here.  They're cautiously pragmatic people and more frightened of controversy and how that could bankrupt their paper than they are enemies of liberty.   

Spielberg captures the early 1970s setting without drawing unwanted attention to the relative garishness of the period (a tough dichotomy for any 70s era specific film to pull off), but the real strength of his approach here is in his ability to hone in on all of the subtler details that gives his film such an overwhelming sense of atmosphere while being aesthetically restrained.  Not only does he faithfully and thanklessly recreate the vibe of the newsroom of decades past (filled with smoke and the sound of typewriters being punched away on and phones ringing constantly), but he also manages to remind us of what an arduous task it was to actually produce, print, and distribute newspapers in a bygone analogue time.  There's a virtuoso sequence showing the meticulous nature of how printing presses are prepped and how, letter by letter and word by word, stencils are made to actually create a final printed newspaper product.  It really makes you take for granted the extraordinary ease we have with reporting and digesting the news today with digital media.  News back then required ample backbreaking work on multiple levels. 

Spielberg's economical and minimalist stylistic trappings here does allow for the performances to shine, and there are some real standouts, such as Bob Odenkirk as a plucky old school reporter that relishes in getting his nose to the grindstone and utilizing every down and dirty method whatsoever to score a lead.  Hanks has been in Spielberg films before (this marks the fifth film for them both together), and he's reliably stalwart and poised playing his deeply prideful editor that's bound and determined to see that the Pentagon Papers get published, no matter what disastrous career ramifications come up.  THE POST is utterly owned, though, by Streep (this is her first collaboration with Spielberg), who has arguably the toughest performance challenge of any of the actors in playing a woman that's beleaguered with insecurities about her place in her dead husband's newspaper empire while simultaneously striving to show a strong face to her board of directors and newspaper team that she's a iron willed and motivated power player.  Streep embodies Kay's vulnerabilities and inner strength with a stillness and evokes her whirlwind of emotions mostly with her eyes; it's as commandingly understated of a performance as the actress has ever given.   

It's also through her character how THE POST also becomes a story of feminist empowerment.  The thematic undercurrent here is, yes, one of the vigilant fight to preserve the First Amendment, but Kay's cerebral battles with her all-male advisory board shows what an terribly challenging position she must have found herself in during a period when many a man felt that a woman didn't deserve a place of authority such as hers.  When she finally defies the staunch recommendations of her minions and breathlessly gives the go-ahead for Ben to publish the papers it's as quietly moving and triumphant of a moment as any I've seen this year.  It's exquisitely rendered character scenes like those that make THE POST such a rousing return to form for Spielberg, who clearly appears to be joyously harnessing the look and feel of classic films of old while using that as a template to echo contemporary woes and fears.  His film champions and celebrates the critical place that a free press plays in the world and their responsibilities to report weighty news that the public deserves to read.  And considering the odious war of words that Trump's administration wages on the press on a daily basis through his Twitter feed, the struggle for a free press in the build up and wake of both the Pentagon Papers and Watergate are perhaps even more relevant now than ever.  

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