The Post was rushed in to production for this holiday season because, well, of course it was.
What's past is prologue. When the most powerful man on the planet uses his position to flagrantly attack the press on a daily basis and has demonstrated his misogyny with astonishing regularity for almost 50 years, a film about the publishing of the Pentagon Papers can take on stunning urgency.
For those that need to brush up on their history, the Pentagon Papers were leaked in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg, a former analyst for the Department of Defense. The ream of documents came from a report on the Vietnam War commissioned by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the mid-1960s. Once in the public sphere, decades of deception about America's involvement in Southeast Asia - lies that spanned multiple administrations - were exposed, further eroding confidence in an already unpopular war.
Ellsberg isn't the focal point of the story - far from it - though Matthew Rhys does well to bring him to life in a few crucial scenes. Instead, director Steven Spielberg trains his focus squarely on the journalists who ran with the gift Ellsberg gave them. Specifically, he is concerned with the now-legendary figures at The Washington Post, editor Ben Bradlee (already immortalized in All the President's Men) and Katherine "Kay" Graham, the publisher of the newspaper, who, along with Bradlee, ushered it through a golden age that also included breaking Watergate.
Spielberg has made a habit of late of tackling tectonic shifts in American history from wonkish angles. Lincoln was a movie hyper-focused on the legislation that helped cement Abraham Lincoln's legacy as emancipator rather than taking a more standard biopic tack. Bridge of Spies took on the whole of the early part of the Cold War through a Soviet spy and the American attorney assigned to defend him. So it is with The Post, which takes on the first amendment, governmental abuse of power and institutional sexism via the titular publication playing catchup on the big story of the moment.
Spielberg matched cinematic to journalistic royalty, with Meryl Streep as Graham and frequent muse Tom Hanks as Bradlee. Their relationship is the crux of the film, and it is strained constantly by Bradlee's relentless - obnoxious even - pursuit of the Papers, which the rival New York Times beat them to badly. Bradlee's dogged chase puts Graham's paper in legal and financial peril at the exact wrong moment - just when she is preparing to take its stock public.
From a storytelling perspective, this proves impossible to screw up. Hanks' Bradlee is just that - it's very clearly Tom Hanks playing a serious, sarcastic newspaperman rather than melting in to the role. Because it's Hanks, the experience isn't ruined in the least. Streep, meanwhile, is (somehow) a revelation as Graham, a woman thrust to the helm of the family business after a personal tragedy leaves her as the only person to run it.
Hard as it is to fathom given Streep's public persona (though not given her acting pedigree), she brings remarkable texture to Graham's uncertainty and anxiousness. She is both the graceful socialite when hosting Washington's elite, including McNamara, at her home and the unconfident, isolated businesswoman in a boardroom full of men. Though she makes a dinner party look easy and summarizing a financial prospectus she knows by heart look hard, there is never any doubt about her competency or her drive. We're meant to understand the pressure she feels as both personal, because of her family's legacy, and political, because, as a woman, she is routinely underestimated and patronized. And Streep, unsurprisingly, brings it all to life with a glance here and a muttering of financial facts there.
Streep and Hanks would be enough for any film, but Spielberg surrounds them with an embarrassment of riches in the acting department. Bob Odenkirk is fantastic as one of Bradlee's best reporters. Tracy Letts shines as Graham's most trusted and respectful adviser. There are great moments for Michael Stuhlbarg and Bradley Whitford and Alison Brie and Jesse Plemons, and I haven't even mentioned the likes of David Cross, Zach Woods and Sarah Paulson. Bruce Greenwood as McNamara is a worthy foil for Streep as they go from friends to frienemies.
The acting talent is matched by craft everywhere else. If you know your history then the end is never in doubt, and yet there is always excitement, forward momentum - a real pep in Spielberg's step.
That is thanks to some familiar collaborators. John Williams' score provides pace and the appropriate amount of pomp. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's work is, again, dazzling. He and Spielberg are scientifically precise in their ability to use camera angles to elicit emotion. So it is when the lens is pointed almost straight up at Hanks, Odenkirk and others as they bust open a box of classified documents. And so it is when Streep, seated, is surrounded by five standing men attempting to pressure her in to a financial decision. and then the camera closes in on her, allowing her expressions to underline every bit of anxiety in the moment.
Richard Nixon looms over the story, but, wisely, never shows his face on screen - a body double and the audio of the famed Nixon tapes all that is needed to establish the darkness of the threat facing the protagonists.
The forces Nixon represents - the battles being fought by Graham and Bradlee and all the people who work for them - linger today. Indeed, they seem resurgent.
Spielberg, Streep, Hanks and everyone else involved in The Post have put together a stirring rallying cry here. It is a bit too preachy at moments - the last 10 minutes especially put a bow on the film that doesn't need really need putting - but now doesn't seem like the right time to fully embrace subtlety.