Reel Time with Joel and Chase
A Potently Relevant Gut-Punch to the Current Administration and a Lesson of History Repeating Itself
Title: The Post
Rating: PG-13 for Language & Brief War Violence
Run Time: Ihr & 43min
**** (out of ****)
In director Steven Spielberg’s The Post, the leader of the United States of America (and, by proxy, the free world), with the weight of the government behind him, has blacklisted at least one major news organization following the potential release of proof that his administration was involved in a mass political cover-up involving, to some degree, rigged elections. Until one gets to the details of the puzzle pieces, the comparison between this story and what is currently happening in the States now is undeniable. The screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer certainly drops a handful of lines of dialogue, delivered by its performers with a shade of a wink, into the proceedings that seek to make that point.
It’s a worthy point, though, and Spielberg, one of the cinema’s great modern humanists, frames the point as a plea to its audience to listen. He is a filmmaker, after all, who has reached his level of clout through ignoring, when necessary, the nuance of a story and simply going for the broad strokes, even while handling the moments of nuance with a firm grasp. Here, in one of his shortest pictures (and his best in perhaps a decade), the director hits the ground running, crafts an accomplished piece of straightforward storytelling and impressive filmmaking, and gets out. It quite mirrors the act of journalistic reporting: telling us the who, when, where, what, and why.
That might make the film sound dry, but it is not. Spielberg, the screenwriters, and editors Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar cram a lot of information into a tightly assembled package that is constantly moving, and John Williams’s score elevates the tension without specifically guiding it. Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, meanwhile, utilizes his now-famous heavenly-bars-of-light-through windows composition scheme to great effect, giving the film a distinctive look and tone that assures it won’t feel like a repeat of previous films of this ilk (1976’s towering All the President’s Men is the most obvious one). Standing on the shoulders of a great crew is a defining feature of Spielberg’s oeuvre, and this is the newest example of that process in motion.
Right from the prologue, in which Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a military analyst for the RAND Corporation, exits a bit of controlled chaos in the 16th year of Vietnam War, only to find himself witnessing the lies of his superiors about the conflict’s efficacy. Bob McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) admits that Ellsberg is right in his assertion that the war isn’t changing anything, then does a 180 with the press, claiming that it’s headed in the right direction. Ellsberg steals the documents that prove the United States knew they had no chance to win the conflict, that four Presidencies had lied about this fact, and releases them to the New York Times.
This sends shockwaves through the country’s leadership. President Richard Nixon (who was less than a year away from another controversy that would eventually overshadow this one) censures the Times, which itself is a headline-worthy story. It catches the eyes of Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the publisher of the Washington Post she inherited from her late father, and Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the publication’s executive editor. Two questions arise: How does one frame the censorship of media that casts a negative light on the country’s leaders, and when the documents themselves fall into the Post’s lap, should they press forward in the face of potential prison time?
The narrative divides its time between that one and the story of Kay’s facing down the rampant sexism that leads to an otherwise all-male group of board members and the belief that a woman, who only gained the paper through the will and testament of her father, should not oversee a publication with so much at stake. Streep is tremendous in a performance that builds and builds to a specific moment of exasperated relief (and more than a little concession) when the decision to run with the story – again, in the face of a board who would rather a woman not make that decision – becomes an immediate reality.
The other half of the narrative is the more prominent half, as investigative reporters working under Kay and Ben seek out and seek to publish sections of what would come to be known as the “Pentagon Papers.” A thorough and superb supporting cast, only one or two of whom don’t have a Big Moment to call their own, elevate the proceedings: Greenwood as McNamara (who isn’t conflicted about the President’s actions but warns Kay of the crap that will hit the fan if she publishes), Rhys as a troubled Ellsberg, Sarah Paulson as Ben’s clever, long-suffering wife Tony, Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian (who finds Ellsberg and keeps his identity close to the chest), Jesse Plemons as Roger Clark (a meticulous lawyer who finds himself overwhelmed by the job at hand), and even more where that comes from. Every performance clicks.
The movie does, too, especially as it enters a climactic race to publish that is every bit as thrilling as an action movie, if not for the fact that it features no explosions and only minimal running on the part of the characters. What follows features the whispers of a courtroom drama that it never becomes. It doesn’t need to. The legal decision – that a free press informs the governed, rather than appeasing the governors – is all we need to know. The point is obvious, but it’s so obvious that the point is made merely by its presence. The Post has, at its core, a rock-solid sense of dramatic forward motion, and it’s the story we need to hear right now.
(Review by Joel Copling)
(Review by Chase Lee)