The Post is the angriest film Steven Spielberg has ever made. That is a compliment: his anger comes with a verve and passion that we have not quite seen since Munich. The film, a docudrama about how The Washington Post came to publish excerpts of The Pentagon Papers, would not exist without Donald Trump becoming President. The events of 2017 loom over The Post, set in the early 1970s, so its polemics are pointed at the modern erosion of our norms, and the first amendment. Aside from all that, the film moves at a steady clip, mixing the paranoia of All the President’s Men with the exhaustive procedural detail of Spotlight. This is not Spielberg at his best, although the clarity of its purpose just might rattle audiences out of an oppressive, numbing status quo.
The script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer is vertically integrated, looking at all levels of The Washington Post as a business. Sure, there are dogged reporters pursuing a lead or a quote, but the paper’s legacy weighs heavily on its owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep). She is about to take the paper public, which calls its legitimacy into question, since The New York Times outfoxes them every time.
In fact, the Times just published something major: a high-level study of America’s Vietnam policy, suggesting that the Eisenhower administration through the Nixon administration pursued war even in the face of near-certain failure. The blockbuster story whets the appetite of Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the Post’s executive editor. When the Justice Department orders the Times to stop publishing the story, Bradlee sees an opportunity: if they can get their hands on it, they could have the exclusive. Things are going great – reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) figures out the source – but soon the Nixon administration is pressuring the Post. This goes all the way to the Supreme Court, with Kay wondering whether the paper will even exist after the legal battle is over.
Procedurally speaking, The Post is an exciting pursuit of the truth. There are nice touches that deglamorize the journalism profession: Bagdikian’s main strategy to placate Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), the RAND researcher who leaked the papers, is to call from interchangeable public pay phones. What makes the film interesting – what makes it relevant to 2017 in particular – are how the details of the papers are incidental to the challenges Bradlee and Graham must face.
Bradlee is a first amendment purist, arguing that their legal battle is nothing less than a battle for America’s ideals. We believe him because his lines, however vainglorious, are spoken by Tom Hanks. Hanks is an inspired choice: Bradlee was always a bit of a scoundrel, and Hanks honors that quality while preserving his natural charm (Jason Robards was more memorable in All the President’s Men because he didn’t try as hard). Similarly, Streep is a good choice for Graham because, well, she is Meryl Steep. Her character has no choice but to suffer fools gladly. She never quite says what she thinks. There is one scene in particular where Spielberg pushes in on her face, letting her tics evoke the mental gears at play, and the showy acting flourish will probably earn her yet another Academy Award nomination.
There are other intriguing layers to The Post, all of which are meant to undermine the idea of D.C. as “the swamp.” Bruce Greenwood turns up as Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s Defense Secretary and Graham’s personal friend, and there is a slimy way he tries to undermine Graham’s commitment to her paper and journalism generally. Bradlee was famously friends with the Kennedys, and there is a scene where he argues that friendship never really impugned his integrity. In scene after scene, the subtext points to the current administration, one that tries to undermine the media and gaslight the country on a massive scale. This is propaganda, and Spielberg knows it. He is not trying to convince us, the young urban liberals, but perhaps the suburban white men and women who voted for Trump en masse.
There is an interesting contrast between The Post and Bridge of Spies, two recent Spielberg films that focus on Supreme Court battles and twentieth century American history as an affirmation of our ideals. Bridge of Spies ends on a note of comfort, with the always reliable Hanks following his values until order is restored in an uncertain world. We even get a scene with Hanks arguing in the Supreme Court, using flowery language that would make Frank Capra jealous. The Post could have ended on a similar note of victory, but instead Spielberg suggests darkness encroaches on our country’s institutions. The editing is tight, even urgent, with John Williams’ score adding to an escalating sense of paranoia. Spielberg’s latest works as entertainment, but he not so secretly wants the audience to run from the theaters and donate to the ACLU.