Review: Flawed but Brisk and Just About Perfectly Directed, The Post

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in The Post (Niko Tavernise)

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in The Post (Niko Tavernise)

The great paradox of Steven Spielberg’s The Post is that it is simultaneously a very timely film and one that is thoroughly of the early ’70s period in which it is set. In the Trump era, it is impossible not to make parallels between the Nixon administration’s attempt to silence the press and cover up its blatant corruption and what the disgraceful leadership in Washington does on a daily basis, but The Post is an incredibly traditional, important film that wears its didacticism on its sleeve and is unsubtle about making its points about the importance of the free press, the responsibilities of journalists and the like. It is a film that could have been made in the ’70s, but the Spielberg of the ’70s (or the Scorsese or Coppola, and so forth) never would have made it. They were innovating then, and this is about as traditional a film as one could make.

There are no figures more representative of the Hollywood establishment than Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, and it is thus perfect casting that Streep and Hanks play the very definition of the establishment press, Washington Post owner Katherine Graham and the editor made famous by All the President’s Men, Ben Bradlee. The film focuses on the Post’s attempts to secure a copy of the Pentagon Papers detailing how unwinnable the war in Vietnam was from Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys of “The Americans”). Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk of “Better Caul Saul”) tracks down Ellsberg, but after a court enjoins the New York Times from publishing the papers, the leadership of the Post must decide whether to challenge the administration’s ban on publication, even if it might lead to jail for the leadership and jeopardize the paper’s public offering.

An additional paradox of The Post is that the story focuses on Graham and Bradlee (not a surprise, given that Streep and Hanks are living legends), but the real action of the story focuses on Odenkirk and Rhys, whose characters are the proactive ones. The story hinges on whether Kay Graham will publish the papers, and Spielberg, to his credit, draws as much tension out of this historical inevitability as possible. This makes the film a Meryl Streep movie that actually isn’t really about her character, which is a shame considering this is the best work she has done in years. There has been a too-easy theatricality to Streep over the years that is unworthy of her, as if she has been content to put on a wig, polish an accent and play to the cheap seats, but here Streep shows she is still capable of modulating her performance. It’s a very giving performance, and thus a shame that the film isn’t as giving with her in return, apart from somewhat obvious material about being undervalued as a woman in a man’s profession.

For The Post, Spielberg assembles the type of cast that essentially only the most powerful man in Hollywood could find. If there is a show with a tremendous about of buzz on television, The Post probably has a cast member in a small role: Sarah Paulson and Bruce Greenwood from “American Crime Story” show up as Bradlee’s wife and former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, while “Fargo” stars Carrie Coon and Jesse Plemons, as well as Alison Brie from “GLOW” show up in small roles. And, as a further imprimatur of quality, Michael Stuhlbarg shows up as the editor of the New York Times, because no quality 2017 film can exist without him. This lends a weightiness to the proceedings, underlining just how important the film is. After all, if the movie can get Coon in her breakout year to be a glorified extra, it must be terribly significant.

What results is a film that seems to lack confidence in itself, as shown by an ending that references the Nixon tangle with the press that everyone thinks of first. It makes The Post into the Rogue One to All the President’s Men, a mere backstory that leads up to the movie that everyone really wants to see, and that devalues so much of what works about the film. It’s brisk, just about perfectly directed and no one in the ensemble hits a false note.

If this review seems too critical of what is a really fine movie, it is only because the film’s pedigree lends it to a more critical eye than a film that aspires only to be a mere blockbuster. After all, the combination of Spielberg, Streep and Hanks invites comparison not to films like Jumanji and Pitch Perfect 3 that will share screens with The Post, but to Schindler’s List and Sophie’s Choice. The three biggest names in Hollywood will just have to settle for making one of the best movies in theaters right now instead of one of the best of all time.

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The Post
Twentieth Century Fox
Now in select theaters, everywhere Jan. 12

4 Stars

Films are rated on a scale of 5 stars (must-see), 4 stars (exceptional), 3 stars (solid), 2 stars (average) and 1 star (unworthy).

Jeremy Ross is a Staff Reporter for Living Out Loud - LA, covering entertainment.

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