Thankfully, Steven Spielberg’s latest Oscar contender is much more watchable than its unimaginative title would suggest. The concurrent production of this and Ready Player One proves once again that the veteran filmmaker is as comfortable with weighty political drama as he is with crowd-pleasing science-fiction blockbusters. While The Post does lose some dramatic tension towards the end of the film, for the most part it is a gripping story of justice and truth.
It’s 1966 and the Vietnam War is going badly for the Americans, despite Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) telling the press otherwise. Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), tired of the lies being fed to the American people, steals and copies hundreds of classified documents detailing US relations with Vietnam, dating back decades. He leaks these documents to reporters at The New York Times, who publish the story in 1971 before being halted by an injunction put in place by Richard Nixon’s administration.
Meanwhile, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is struggling to match the scoops of the Times, having to settle instead for coverage of Tricia Nixon’s wedding. Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) is also acclimatising to her new responsibilities as the Post’s owner and publisher. When they get their hands on the leaked documents, they have to decide whether to publish the Pentagon Papers and face potential legal action, or ultimately let the White House control the press.
Spielberg is clearly fascinated by the way the political climate has changed over America’s relatively brief history. Whereas Lincoln celebrated a time when the Republican Party were ‘the liberal ones’ with the eponymous president’s abolition of slavery, The Post examines a later, more conservative Republican’s attempts to keep the public in the dark. Indeed, Nixon may be the president in this film, but the contemporary parallels with the Trump administration’s relationship with the media is no accident.
Although Jason Robards deservedly won an Oscar for his portrayal of Bradlee in 1976’s All the President’s Men – which detailed the Post’s investigation of the Watergate scandal that brought Nixon’s presidency to a grinding halt – Hanks makes the role his own. But this is Katherine Graham’s story and Meryl Streep conveys her psychological journey beautifully, from a woman uncertain in her new position to one who calls the shots. It is interesting, too, to compare this to her performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, another example of a woman navigating her way through a male-dominated profession. The two veteran performers lead an excellent ensemble that includes Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford and Carrie Coon.
However, the film curiously glosses over the Supreme Court proceedings in which figures from the Times and the Post came together to argue the case for the First Amendment. What should have been the dramatic climax of the film is almost entirely ignored. But put that and Spielberg’s unashamed sentimentality aside and you have an engaging, compelling and informative political thriller that speaks as much to our time as it does to the time it depicts.
The Post is available digitally on 14 May and on DVD & Blu ray on 21 May, 2018.
Words by Logan Jones @LoganOnFilm.