Steven Spielberg’s latest historical drama The Post is a funny little animal. The film is based on Kay Graham’s decision to publish findings from the classified Pentagon Papers in The Washington Post. Graham, played by best living actor front-runner Meryl Streep, was the first woman publisher of a major newspaper, and the film details her struggle with these responsibilities. As such, The Post has a dual focus: it is part defense of free speech and the right to publish, and part celebration of female empowerment. Spielberg does a great job balancing these, but the film also has a peculiar look to it, with an active camera that feels a little too dizzying. Most of the drama derives from Graham’s decision to publish and how she grows more confident in her abilities. Though it may be a little generic with respect to it’s handling of The First Amendment, The Post absolutely nails the more human side of the story.
The plot of The Post takes a little while to get off the ground because a few different threads need to come together. First, we learn about the Pentagon Papers and how they were leaked to the press (first to the New York Times, later to the Washington Post). Next, we meet the people who write for the Washington Post, most importantly the editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks. Finally, we begin to understand everything that is at stake for Kay Graham as new owner of the paper. The Washington Post is going through an IPO to fund itself, and there isn’t a lot of confidence that this is the correct choice or that Graham is capable of running the paper. Once the New York Times gets a gag order for embarrassing Nixon, the pressure ramps up on the Post to refrain from publishing details of the Pentagon Papers. It all comes down to Graham – if she decides to publish, she may be risking the IPO and even imprisonment; if she doesn’t, then what kind of newspaper owner would she be?
All of these conflicts are well-established and handled masterfully by Spielberg. The plot is a major strength of the film, especially given that the history of these events is quite well-documented. The fact that the story feels tense at all is an accomplishment.
The performances in The Post are also solid. Hanks and Streep are both awesome, but neither really blow the audience away. Streep likely delivers the stronger performance, as she has to begin the film with a paucity of confidence and grow from there. She’s afraid of running The Post, scared that the IPO will go poorly, and lacks confidence in her own abilities – even though she is devoting a large amount of time to preparing herself. By the end of the film, as she defiantly decides that she’s going to publish, she’s grown quite a bit. It’s a strong arc, perfectly portrayed by Streep.
Hanks has less to do, less to grow with. He starts off as the editor-in-chief, ends up as the editor-in-chief, and doesn’t do much in between other than beat the drum for the First Amendment. That’s a fine drum to beat to be sure, but it isn’t particularly interesting from a character standpoint.
The same certainly cannot be said for the look of the film. The camera is a bit strange in The Post. Spielberg has made a conscious choice to have a weird and active camera, darting all over the place. It moves around the room, follows people, skews angles all the time, and generally draws attention to itself. Honestly, it feels like it’s all for the sake of artistry, without much substance to it. Stepping back and analyzing this bizarre choice leads me to believe that Spielberg wants to convey the kind of truth-seeking and investigative feel that should accompany a film about reporting. But, this approach feels too kitschy, too sloppy. For these reasons, the cinematography of The Post is a major weakness.
On a thematic level, The Post does much better. The film handles investigative reporting and freedom of the press in much the same way as we’ve seen previously in films like All the Presidents Men and more recently Spotlight, so there’s not much new there. But, the addition of the “woman in man’s world” material adds a much-needed extra element to the film, especially in the hands of an artist like Streep. In fact, this is easily the more effective and powerful theme of the film, as it collects many of the other elements together. In assuming her new role, Graham most definitely expresses a feminine strength and command of the paper. In addition, by choosing to publish, she shows her integrity and respect for journalism and champions the importance of the First Amendment. The cohesion is impressive, all tied together by Streep’s wonderful performance.
The Post is definitely a strong film. Though it sports some of the most awkward cinematography in recent memory (especially for a mainstream film), its outstanding organization of plot, conflict, and themes more than makes up for this one gaffe. And Streep’s portrayal of Kay Graham ties it all together beautifully. So, while the film may retread some familiar elements, Spielberg’s dramatization of this nascent businesswoman coming into her strength is quite powerful.