The Post (Spielberg, 2017)

Aware that The Post had not been faring so well this award season, my expectations were not very high. Nor did the opening prologue, showcasing a snippet of the Vietnam War, help assuage my fears that this was going to be a miss from Spielberg. After all, he had only finished shooting it last May, fast-tracking its post-production so that it could be released while the Trump presidency was still very much in the spotlight. But rushing a film is risky. If no one ends up caring, the effort will have gone to waste (and seeing how badly it’s performing with the guilds, I think the effort has already gone to waste).

Here’s the thing: Spielberg is such a professional that he could make something filmed in a week look good. And if he expedited The Post, boy, it doesn’t show. Shot and edited with remarkable fluency, his retelling of The Washington Post’s struggle to publish a series of classified documents about Vietnam (known as the Pentagon Papers) rarely wobbles out of balance, turning journalistic endeavours into a high stakes game of secrecy and chance that could falter at any minute. The newsroom is now a battleground; people can come and go at any time, dropping crucial pieces of info that will open even more avenues of exploration. It can be an exciting place and a dull place, and on a bad day, the ethical question is rendered moot if the competing paper down the road has a juicy scoop in need of excavation. Journalists can be sharks or guppies. Spielberg highlights them all, and I’m glad he doesn’t glorify the profession to any great extent, other than to show how important the free press is in a democratic society. They do good work, but if there are Ben Bradlees around, you know the rules won’t always apply.

Weaved into the story is an arc involving the newspaper’s publisher, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), whose insecurity in a male-dominated realm makes her believe she is inadequate at her job. Then she must confront an awful truth about her close friend Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who lied to the people about Vietnam’s prospects and further escalated a war he knew could not be won. It’s so nice to see Streep play a role entirely with restraint, and she really gets who Graham was and the betrayal she must have suffered. At first, it feels like her story plays at a remove from the one dealing with Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee and the newsroom’s pursuit of the Papers. But they do coalesce, and the payoff has great resonance. Streep’s performance builds to an understated, luminous crescendo, and you understand immediately why Kay Graham’s story needed to be there. It could have been told in a separate film, sure. But the connections make all the difference.

There are some faults to be find here and there, like some truly unsubtle bits of dialogue that only exist to signpost the film’s parallelism to the Trump administration’s contempt for the media. Given the film’s production, could we have expected anything different? The film also doesn’t delve too deeply into the contents of the Papers themselves, other than giving cursory summations of their contents. Something of a shame, but considering this is a story about The Washington Post, understandable.

There is also the traditional Spielbergian ending in place, with rousing orchestral cues from John Williams to force some moisture into your eyes. It’s unabashedly hokey, and the coda is almost comically expected, but I still cried a little and didn’t mind. In a world so blackened by one man’s wretchedness, I find comfort in being reminded that there are institutions determined not to let his kind win. The Post is about upholding the public’s right to decency and truth, and how hard some people work to do it—even when all hope seems lost. Call it a tonic for the times, if you will. I think it’s needed, and Spielberg was the right guy to give it to us.