In possession of classified material that exposes multiple cover-ups by the U.S. Government, The Washington Post questions whether it should publish the news, given the risks to both the future of the company and the staff itself.
1 hour, 56 minutes
January 12, 2018
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Composer: John Williams
Stars: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood.
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
If The Snowman or The Circle taught us anything last year, then it’s that having big names attached to a project can mean nothing in regards to quality. Delving into the historical drama that surrounded the release of the Pentagon Papers, The Post advertises an impressive array of talent: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, John Williams, and Steven Spielberg. The formula for greatness is there. But can the same be said about the audience’s interest?
Violence/Scary Images: Right at the start of the film, there is a scene set in the Vietnam War. American soldiers duck and engage in battle when they encounter enemy fire. Some soldiers are shot, but there is no blood or gore.
Language/Crude Humor: The following swear words are spoken roughly seven or fewer times: the f-bomb and its variations, the s-word and its variations, d*mmit, *ss, son of a b*tch, Godd*mn, and Jesus Christ’s name is used in vain.
Drug/Alcohol References: Some characters are seen smoking cigarettes. Alcohol is drunk at social gatherings, though the film doesn’t depict any intoxicated behavior.
Spiritual Content: None.
Sexual Content: None.
Other Negative Content: The entire plot revolves around whether one should publish leaked classified Government files. There is much discussion as to whether they will be charged with collusion, contempt of court, espionage, and treason, and if their actions will impede the Government and its defense forces. Knowing the risks, many characters still push against the law. On a number of occasions, one character is tasked with plagiaristic activities, spying on other news publishers and reporting back their findings. When asked whether it’s legal, other characters merely laugh it off.
Positive Content: The Post is an exploration of what it means for a country to have the freedom of the press, and strongly advocates for one’s First Amendment rights. It also shows the harmful effects of mansplaining. It promotes the idea of standing up for oneself; having confidence in your own ideas and capabilities. The film also conveys the message that sometimes pursuing the greater good isn’t always comfortable.
The Post is good for what it is. If you’re interested in the story behind The Washington Post’s involvement with the Pentagon Papers, then this film is a detailed and thrilling retelling, with talent both in front and behind the camera. It’s competent, yet it also feels rather “standard.”
The first half of the film is rather dense and intellectually intimidating. There is essentially a lot that needs to be established before it can start to roll at a quicker pace. Surprisingly, prior knowledge about the Government’s role in the Vietnam War or the Pentagon Papers isn’t required, though an understanding of the structure of company stocks will prove beneficial.
Essentially the film comes to a stall right at the beginning, focusing on the soldiers overseas, the studies analyzing their effectiveness, the smuggling of those files, and the potentially illegal involvement of The New York Times. On top of this, audiences are also learning about the plethora of characters and their relationships with each other, along with a side plot about the Washington Post’s debut on the Stock Exchange. The pace crawls because The Post’s narrative takes a passive stance, looking at the drama occurring to The New York Times from an outsider’s perspective. The film tells the story-within-the-story, maintaining a narrow focus.
Yet once the drama is dumped on The Post’s desk, and all the groundwork has been painstakingly laid, it finally lurches forth at a breathtaking pace. A time bomb is added, where the script implements a high stakes deadline. This is helped by John Williams’ quietly ticking, softly repetitive soundtrack.
Steven Spielberg does well to make office meetings dramatically compelling. The latter half of the film is thrilling, with each development riveting to watch despite audiences already knowing the historical outcome. The editing is snappy and flows well, breaking up tense conversations with the oddly mesmerizing rhythmic construction of the printing press.
It’s The Post’s complex themes that are the real crux of the movie. Both sides of the core argument are represented. On the one hand, publishing classified documents can be considered an act of treason. Yet on the other, the press needs to commit to their role in serving the public. This push-pull dynamic, along with the layering of the personal stakes for the characters and their business, is what makes The Post an intellectually stimulating analysis on the issue of these conflicting rights.
Yet once the decision has been made and the point of no return has passed, despite the stakes remaining surprisingly high, the excitement surprisingly fizzles out in the third act. A reason for this might be that the film doesn’t sell the nobility of the characters’ motivations; did they really believe in the freedom of the press, or did they just want the glory? It may actually be both, but regardless, the movie ineffectually tries to elevate its heroes when the audience perceives them in a contradictory light.
Another reason may be that Spielberg’s direction isn’t terribly inspired during some portions of the film. Unlike Nolan’s Inception where he has the challenge of portraying the human subconsciousness three levels deep, The Post is a straightforward drama that could be helmed by any number of people in Hollywood. While it can be challenging to make heavy conversational pieces compelling, a lot of the movie feels stock-standard. Once the adrenaline has drained after the second act, the finale feels mind-numbingly twee in comparison.
My brother joked that The Post will earn Oscar nominations by default, and I do have to agree with that assessment. All the performances are strong, though they keep it rather safe. Tom Hanks plays the executive editor, Ben Bradlee, and he magnificently conveys the feeling that he’s an old hand at his job. The same can be said regarding Bob Odenkirk’s work, though he plays a more restrained, perceptive role. However, while there is nothing inherently wrong with their portrayals, neither actor is really stretching themselves in terms of their craft; we don’t necessarily see anything new here.
Meryl Streep’s acting has been described by some as “Oscar-baity.” Personally, I believe it’s because she is the only actor that is playing a character that is opposite to her type. In The Post, Katherine (Kay) Graham has only recently become the company’s president, a job that she inadvertently inherited due to the sudden passing of her husband. It was a role that was never intended for her, and as such, she is constantly walked over by the men that dominate the field of the publishing world. Soft and filled with self-doubt, this is not the Meryl Streep that we know.
If Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee is the driver of the plot, then Meryl Streep superbly represents the emotional heart of the story. Kay’s character arc is a subtle yet all-too-relatable one. It is a delight to watch this female character grow in confidence and shed the negative thoughts concerning whether she is capable of handling the power that comes with her job. It’s a subplot that’s as equally compelling as the main story, though it never screams for attention, and instead compliments the action by layering the narrative’s complexities.
Many people have described this film as being “timely.” Indeed, once Steven Spielberg read the script, he rushed The Post into production, despite still working on Ready Player One. This is a movie that will no doubt feel relevant to those who have grievances against the Trump Administration. Those audiences will develop a deeper connection with this film, however, the surrounding context of this piece will eventually be lost with time. While the core arguments in The Post will always be important, how relevant will its message be next year? What about in five years time? Ten?
As an Australian, and therefore reasonably outside of the loop regarding this movie’s contextual placement, The Post merely feels like yet another well-produced biopic that provides a fascinating history lesson and not much more. It’s not a game-changing movie. It doesn’t excite me as a film geek. Ironic considering the subject matter, in the cinema world, this film hasn’t taken any risks. If it does earn an Oscar nod, then it’ll go the same way as The Hurt Locker, Moneyball, Argo, and Captain Phillip; all great films, but they eventually recede to the back of one’s mind as the years go on.
As I mentioned at the beginning, The Post is a good film for what it is. If you’re in the mood for a biopic, with strong talent and juicy themes, along with an interest in this period of history, then, by all means, watch this movie. Yet it is not one I would recommend for everyone. With poor pacing and a dense narrative at the start, the entertainment value simply isn’t there for most people. It’s also not a visual extravaganza, and it’s hard to justify seeing this on the big screen as opposed to simply waiting for it to be available through other means. It’s a good film, but it’s not a must-see.
+ Riveting second half.
+ The core dilemma is intellectually stimulating.
+ Lovely, nuanced subplot.
+ Timely story (for some Americans).
+ Oddly satisfying shots of machinery.
- First half is dense and drags.
- The tension fizzles out right before the film's conclusion.
- Oscar-worthy mostly by default.
- There's nothing that feels "new" here.
- Won't appeal to most audiences.