REVIEW: ‘The Post’ charms like retro Spielberg, bridging past and present
January 18, 2018
Whether it’s tailing publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) into a sea of sharply-dressed Wall Street investors or plunging into a swell of notepads and flashbulbs on the Supreme Court steps, Stephen Spielberg’s camera rolls from swarm to throng like an amusement park’s anxiety-fueled dark ride in The Post, which hit theaters Jan. 12.
The new feature is a historical drama set during the Nixon administration, but it’s not a far cry from the magical blend of cozy realism and the supernatural that gave life to the adventure flicks Spielberg built his name around in the ‘80s. When a shoebox containing 100 pages’ worth of stolen military documents appears in the offices of the pre-Watergate Washington Post, the timeless tingle of discovering an alien in the backyard or a university professor’s divine calling to find the Ark of the Covenant is vividly present.
At its core, The Post is a triptych of classic “David and Goliath” narratives. Graham works to assert her authority as publisher of the paper, despite the doubts of investors and board members who question her ability to fill her late husband’s shoes. Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) doggedly ignores the warnings of lawyers and higher-ups in order to expose government corruption in Vietnam, despite the fact that doing so may land him and his staff in prison. Military analyst turned anti-war leaker Daniel Ellsburg (Matthew Rhys) eludes the arm of the FBI long enough to drop top-secret documents into the hands of the press.
These conflicts converge on a single plot point: whether or not Graham greenlights the Vietnam coverage that has already slapped a court injunction on The New York Times, who had reported on the leaked documents just days prior. What’s lacking in tangible action is made up for by the anxious energy and stress that Spielberg injects into every cut. Deadlines, meetings, court orders, tense phone calls, late-night trips to the newsroom and sketchy sources form a whirlwind around the viewer, making the film tough to process without giving you a case of the nervous sweats. The film really puts you into the shoes of a newspaper’s staff, constantly overwhelmed by the burdens of timeliness and responsibility.
This chaos is best captured by The Post’s constantly shifting setting. Though the paper’s newsroom loosely serves as the film’s “home base,” its cast doesn’t spend much time there. One minute, an intern’s sent to spy on the rival New York Times’ star correspondent. The next, Bradlee’s staff sprawls out in his living room, poring over the disorganized Pentagon Papers and hammering away on typewriter keys as his daughter hawks glasses of lemonade for 50 cents a pop. Many scenes take place at Graham’s upscale Georgetown home, where her patio hosted a perpetual stream of cocktail parties for the Washington elite.
Streep’s portrayal of Graham is another highlight of the film. In The Post’s exposition, she stumbles through socialite functions and board meetings gracelessly, knocking over chairs and spilling papers with a clumsiness understood by anyone who’s felt in over their head. Her aspiration to live up to her husband’s legacy shines through her stumbles and oversized glasses, but it isn’t fully realized until Bradlee brings the conviction out of her.
Hanks’ take on Graham’s editor is honestly somewhat rough–the gravelly accent’s overdone and the boisterous self-assuredness is a little cartoonish–but it works as Streep’s foil. His stage presence is impossible to ignore: he’s Indiana Jones with a pad and pencil, propping up the first amendment with a comic book protagonist’s sincere fervor for justice.
At times, The Post’s social commentary and parallels to the present day are a bit heavy-handed. The film sometimes forces teachable moments, using monologues as a means to get us to think a certain way about a character. Whether or not you fully sympathize with Graham, given her history of buddying up with the Washington insiders and cabinet members the paper was meant to scrutinize, we’re elbowed into buying her bravery wholeheartedly.
In the end though, this is Spielberg at his adventurous best. The sentimentality is part of the experience, whether you like it or not. Despite its lack of explosions or chase scenes, The Post is brimming with adventure, bringing snappy script writing and solid acting together to deliver a surprisingly fast-paced, exciting film.