Steven Spielberg’s The Post is set in 1971, yet it couldn’t be more about 2017 if it tried. There are period-specific sideburns, mustard-colored shirts, and a screen choked with cigarette smoke, but it’s a timely wake-up call about speaking truth to power in the “fake news” era.
Movies, of course, take a long time to gestate, and when this rousing ink-stained procedural about The Washington Post’s race to publish the Pentagon Papers was being written, the 2016 election wasn’t yet over. Spielberg caught a lucky break — if you can call anything related to that election lucky. The message of the movie is so obvious it’s a shame it needs repeating: namely, that an adversarial press is essential to democracy.
Spielberg can’t help but turn The Post into a “message movie.” He rises to our current moment on stilts, with a megaphone and a swelling John Williams score. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep star as Post editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham, whose cash-strapped paper is an also-ran next to the more august New York Times (something that wouldn’t truly change until the Post’s Watergate coverage later). After the Times publishes a trove of leaked top secret government documents detailing a vast web of lies about the war in Vietnam, President Nixon sues to stop further publication. So Bradlee and his team of hard-charging reporters (including a rumpled Bob Odenkirk) pick up the baton and barrel to the finish line. The film hinges on the push-pull dynamic between the charismatic, rolled-shirtsleeve Bradlee (Hanks has never been such a terrific rascal) and Graham, his patrician boss who’s more comfortable hosting parties for Beltway swells than making tough calls in the bullpen.
The beauty of Streep’s performance (and it’s one of her best in years) is how she lets you see her grow into the responsibility of her position. She elevates The Post from being a First Amendment story to a feminist one, too. Spielberg makes these crucial days in American history easy to follow. But if you look at The Post next to something like All the President’s Men, you see the difference between having a story passively explained to you and one where you’re actively helping to untangle a narrative knot alongside the characters. That’s a small quibble with an urgent and impeccably acted film. But it’s also the difference between a very good movie and a great one. B+