We’ve seen a lot of iterations of Steven Spielberg, from Sci-Fi Spielberg (Minority Report, War of the Worlds) to Prestige Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Lincoln) to Middlebrow Schmaltz Spielberg (The Terminal, War Horse). The Post reveals yet another Spielberg: Message Spielberg. Unlike say, Oliver Stone, we’ve rarely seen Spielberg with a bee in his bonnet, delivering a film with a clear and transparent takeaway.
The Post is Spielberg’s clear and passionate ode to the adversarial press, and not only is it a refreshing departure from his past work, it also turns out to be a good fit for his slick storytelling style. Spielberg is, at his core, a populist—a guy who wants to make crowd-pleasers so badly that his name has become synonymous with them. That means he tends not to leave much to the imagination. You don’t have to guess what he’s thinking, because he tells you. Without a lot of wasted motion in his storytelling, it becomes painfully obvious when he doesn’t have much to say (War Horse again, sorry to harp on this).
With The Post, Spielberg’s skills are put to a purpose: Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, the chain-smoking, gray-suited editor of the Washington Post. Hanks is the perfect choice for a character who’s juuust enough of a salty old sumbitch to keep things from turning into mushy hagiography. In one of the first scenes, Bradlee tells Katharine “Kay” Graham—the owner of the newspaper, played by grand dame of cinema Meryl Streep—to “keep your finger out of my eye.”
Ah yes, the smoky, Scotch-swilling good ol’ days of the news biz, when you could still put a broad in her place, even if she was your boss. It’s a good setting for a story that turns on Graham and her ability to rise to the challenge. It’s 1971, and the drama of the day concerns the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret history of the United States’ disastrous involvement in Vietnam and the lies the government told the American people along the way. Daniel Ellsberg (The Americans’ Matthew Rhys, who has a great cloak-and-dagger face) has started leaking the report to the New York Times, which gets slapped with an injunction.
With the New York Times silenced, The Post follows the Washington Post’s journey to (1) acquire the Pentagon Papers and (2) decide whether to publish, risking lawsuits and jail time. While Ellsberg is the traditional hero of this story (in an interesting footnote, he avoided jail time largely only because Nixon’s moronic attempts at a cover-up backfired), The Post makes a case for Graham. “Think of what she’s risking,” Bradlee’s wife (Sarah Paulson) tells him. “She’s got her family’s legacy to think about.”
Part of me wanted to go all Braveheart and pooh-pooh the idea of Graham risking more because she’s rich (“And the common man who bleeds on the battlefield, does he risk less?”), but The Post works hard to sell us. Spielberg overdoes the “feminist hero” angle a little—at one point, he shoots her ascending courthouse steps through a corridor of fawning female admirers, a bit of lily-gilding that’s superfluous after a mother-daughter scene between Streep and Alison Brie that makes the same point better. But it’s forgivable for a male filmmaker trying to do right by this material—and especially for Spielberg, who’s always been defined by his inherent too-muchness.
The story has obvious contemporary parallels, with the press risking it all to check the president’s power—and Spielberg, surprisingly, rises to the challenge. In a lot of ways, The Post is the movie Oliver Stone wanted Snowden to be.