There is never a bad time to be reminded of the importance of a free press, but Steven Spielberg has seized this moment and made it count in The Post. Older moviegoers will remember the saga of the notorious Pentagon Papers that exposed government secrets regarding our involvement in Vietnam. They were leaked by a man named Daniel Ellsberg and published, at great risk, in 1971.
This exciting film will give younger people a modern history lesson cloaked in the guise of a thriller. What’s more, they will learn how an inexperienced publisher named Katherine Graham came into her own by making an exceedingly gutsy decision.
The story behind this film is almost as good as the picture itself: it was written as a “spec script” by 31-year-old newcomer Liz Hannah and came to the attention of producer Amy Pascal, who gave it to Spielberg in February of this year. By June he was shooting the movie, with screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight) on board for last-minute rewrites. With no time for meticulous preparation or rehearsals, he chose a rock-solid cast led by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and surrounded himself with a trusted A-team of collaborators including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designer Rick Carter, costume designer Ann Roth (a Streep favorite), and composer John Williams.
The result is mainstream moviemaking at its very best: intelligent and entertaining, with a timeliness that no one could predict or devise. Yet Spielberg never succumbs to smugness: he trusts his audience to get the point. Attacking the press is a sport that many public figures have enjoyed over the years; the best way to defend it is with potent storytelling.
Like Spotlight, The Post revels in the inherent excitement of reporting a big story. The year is 1971 and the newsroom is filled with manual typewriters, rotary telephones, and other now-antiquated objects we used to take for granted. But there is no substitute for a reporter with good sources and sharp instincts. He or she needs the backing of a bold editor and a publisher who is willing to take a risk for the public good. These can sound like hollow words until you see them put into action.
Meryl Streep strikes gold yet again playing a woman who has inherited a newspaper of no repute. She has raised a family but never held an office job, let alone run a corporation. She counts on her husband’s advisors to steer her in the right direction. How are we to believe an actress of such enormous stature as a woman who hasn’t even got the confidence to speak up at her own board meeting? Watch this alchemist at work and you’ll see.
Tom Hanks matches her, stride for stride, as the brash, raspy-voiced editor Ben Bradlee, who became a household name during the Watergate era. He runs his newsroom with an iron fist and refuses to cave in to the whims of his patrician publisher. (Hanks met Bradlee on a number of occasions and was able to draw on his memories of the editor’s forceful personality.)
Supporting roles are filled by a wonderful ensemble including Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Michael Stuhlbarg, Carrie Coon, Bruce Greenwood, Alison Brie, David Cross, Matthew Rhys, and Jesse Plemons.
Another key role is played by an old-fashioned Linotype machine that Spielberg and Rick Carter found in White Plains, New York. The director admits that he fell in love with it, and it’s easy to see why: when earth-shattering words are punched out in slivers of hot lead there is a tangible quality that typing on a computer keyboard just can’t match.
The Post may have lessons to impart, but it works first and foremost as a superior piece of entertainment. Spielberg and company may walk away with awards but first they should feel a surge of pride for what they have accomplished.