Every now and then, inspiration pushes an artist to quickly create a work that both squarely nails the current zeitgeist and can stand the test of time as a classic. Steven Spielberg is one such artist for whom it seems to happen to every few years, and his latest film, ‘The Post’, is one such work. A movie that on its’ surface might seem old-fashioned and unassuming in both its’ telling and appearance, but at its’ core is a riveting, intimate, perfectly acted treatise on the press’ key role within the republic and an exploration of gender in the workplace. A tale that was prescient at the time, yet at present also unfortunately serves as a reminder of how far we still need to go as a society.
‘The Post’ is the first of two releases directed by the prolific 71-year-old Spielberg in less than three months. While completing principal photography on the sure-to-be CGI-heavy spectacle, ‘Ready Player One’, an ode to all things 1980’s set for a March release, he came across a spec script by aspiring screenwriter Liz Hannah and felt the immediate need to get the story out in the world NOW. The spec script involved Washington Post CEO Katherine ‘Kat’ Graham’s 1971 struggles in publishing The Pentagon Papers, an expose on US involvement in Vietnam, as well as overcoming marginalization through decisions that would lead to her becoming the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. With the might of Spielberg behind the movie, he was able to quickly assemble an impressive roster of cast and crew, from co-screenwriter Josh Singer (Oscar-winner for ‘Spotlight’), cinematographer / frequent collaborator Janusz Kaminski, to Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks as the leads (the first time the two have worked together). Even the great John Williams delivered a score just days prior to release.
The film basically unfolds over a short period of time, but it was a crucial one for the fledgling family-owned newspaper, one in a sea of Washington, D.C. publications battling for relevance. Streep plays Graham, a woman surrounded by a gaggle of advisors (none more trusted than Tracy Letts’ Fritz Beebe and none more condescending than Bradley Whitford’s Arthur Parsons) who mean to aid her in the running of the paper after the suicide of her husband. She gently bends to the will of her Editor-in-Chief Ben Bradlee (an inspired Tom Hanks), illustrated in the first meeting between the actors, a breakfast scene on Bradlee’s turf where it is hard to tell who works for whom. When the New York Times comes under fire via a federal injunction (with support from President Nixon himself) for publishing leaked information proving the government had a history of purposefully lying to the American people about the Vietnam War, it falls to the Post to decide what risks it is willing to take once provided with the entirety of the study, what would famously become The Pentagon Papers.
It’s at this point when the film becomes a flurry of exciting scenes between a stacked and stellar group of supporting actors in various gatherings and one-on-ones. Spielberg keeps the plot moving along via expertly staged sequences using a very fluid camera. He frequently alters camera angles and character framing to produce an air of urgency and immediacy. His conversational sets are framed by interesting shadows and a unique method of panning down while keeping the lens trained on the actors, so that the audience is looking upwards at the principals, providing an almost child-like vantage point witnessing exchanges of import. Spielberg and crew were also able to film the detailed mechanics of the printing press circa 1970’s, an interesting look back at the intricacy and palpability of the old-school medium. These brilliant techniques are all in service to a driving narrative of increasing tension and an emerging character study centered on Streep’s Graham, a role where she wisely avoids grandstanding and speechifying. The sequel to this movie already exists with ‘All the President’s Men’, but without the efforts put on screen in this movie, the Watergate scandal would likely have never come to light, and history would have told a very different story . . .
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Liz Hannah & Josh Singer
Running Time: 116 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- B+