The Post Review
For a film that reveres the good old days of journalism as much as Steven Spielberg's The Post, it's a little odd that the lifeblood of the industry itself is barely seen. It works as a quasi-prequel to All The President’s Men, recalling the Pentagon Papers exposé that pre-empted the Watergate scandal. Any comparisons between the two films sadly starts and ends there – aside from featuring plenty of brown clothing and dodgy haircuts – and the inclusion of Spotlight’s Oscar winning writer Josh Singer can’t alter the lack of focus on the investigation involved in bringing the story to the public.
Spielberg’s interest lies in showing us every cog of the media machine, examining the greasing of its parts from the suited players at board level down to the junior staff members sent across the country on urgent errands. Meryl Streep takes on the role of Washington Post owner Katharine Graham, America's first female Fortune 500 CEO, a role we are told was some way beyond her experience at the time. Down in the bustling newsroom executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is a man constantly on the prowl for the big exclusive that will transform the newspaper’s position in the market, although he can’t avoid the shadow cast by the success of The New York Times.
This all-inclusive approach attempts to frame the developing story in its entirety by letting us in on the boardroom drama where share prices and murky relationships with Government officials influence the words sent to the printing press. In the process of painting this broader picture the urgency of a story with so much riding it on struggles to gain momentum. Once the first papers are released to the public revealing the endless lies told to the public over the Vietnam War, President Nixon (or Trump, as Spielberg so desperately wants us to believe) and his cronies sharpen their knives and begin to hack away at the First Amendment.
Yet for all the detail served up tension levels remain sparingly low despite Spielberg relying on his tried and tested methods. Our knowledge of events shouldn’t prevent an historical drama from being a gripping source of drama. Instead, it seems so intent on drawing the obvious comparisons with Trump and turning Graham into a feminist heroine that the importance of the papers themselves are marginalised. Millions of men, women and children died during the Vietnam war and the journalists involved willingly risked imprisonment for the sake of bringing the truth to the public. The closer we come to the papers being printed the more self-congratulatory the film becomes about the modern-day parallels it is trying to draw.
The investigation that led journalist Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) to find the military analyst who first leaked the papers, feels underwhelming in the face of Bradlee’s battle with Graham and her own ongoing moments of uncertainty. Streep gives a nuanced portrayal of Graham as you would expect. More used to a high-society lifestyle, she is plagued by self-doubt and forced out of her comfort zone into boardrooms full of middle-aged suited men who respect her ownership more than her gender. Hanks, on the other hand, is closer to caricature than anything else, but his scenes with Streep produce some of the best moments in the film. The two actors are enjoying spending time together onscreen at last and the dialogue suddenly comes alive through their theatrical-style interactions.
Spielberg clearly has a love for the old printing presses and the glory days of big media journalism. The Post was made in reaction to the threat he and many others feel that Trump poses to the freedom of the press, much like Nixon during his reign. Everything looks immaculate through DoP Janusz Kamiński’s lens and all the components are in their right place. What Spielberg seems to have forgotten is to remind his audience exactly why freedom of the press is so important. How investigative journalism continues to be such a valuable skill when used in the right way. The days of preaching from the pulpit have long since passed, but an old school cast and director are far too enamoured with nostalgia to have noticed the change.