It’s Meryl Streep’s superpower. Just a twitch of her eyebrow telegraphs a tectonic shift in emotion. Weathering the aftershocks of the emotional earthquake is Tom Hanks, with his reassuring mixture of anxiety, confidence, and passion, the reliable hero we need. And Steven Spielberg, staging a phone call with all the explosive intensity of an action film, turns the two greatest actors of their generation into the best special effects of 2017.
In truth, you could shorthand a review for The Post much as you would a CGI popcorn bonanza. Streep! Hanks! Spielberg! Journalism! The Avengers have assembled. Hollywood's Good Guys—the remaining few—have teamed up to defend the free press and inspire citizens to rise against the government’s dastardly villains. Save us from the wreckage of corruption. Restore normalcy after turbulent times.
The triumph of The Post is that such grand ambition doesn’t even seem ridiculous. In fact, it even feels necessary.
The timeliness of the film, of course, is no accident. In interviews, Spielberg has repeatedly mentioned how this is the only year he could have made the picture, rushing into production and then into theaters. It opens December 22, just shy of Donald Trump’s first year in office. (But just in time, of course, to qualify for all the Oscar trophies it’s bound to sweep up.)
The film revisits the crusades by The New York Times and, more specifically, The Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers, which revealed that America was losing the Vietnam War, in spite of threats from the government meant to keep their contents secret from the American public. The mirroring of dates is certainly eerie—1971 and 2017—but no more haunting than the shared vocabulary of the respective times: “obstruction,” “collusion,” and “First Amendment.”
The main focus is the debate between Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Streep) and her editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) on whether to risk jail time, not to mention their livelihoods, by continuing to publish the leaked top secret documents after a court forbade The New York Times from doing so.
There’s a bit of a silliness to the gusto with which film sets out to inspire, but I’ll be damned if it’s not an effective call to arms.
A film about the necessity of the Fourth Estate and vigorous journalism in a democracy, The Post obviously resonates in the age of fake news and an administration that openly encourages distrust of the press. But it is also the overdue hero’s origin story of Katharine Graham, who made a decision that changed history while being the only woman in a roomful of men who routinely dismissed, belittled, silenced, and, most gravely, underestimated her.
It all could be written off as the cinematic adaptation of an insufferable 2017 think piece, were it not for the added gravitas and horror of being based on historical events we’re dangerously close to repeating.
The script is chockful of the kinds of platitudes that would ordinarily arm critics with enough artillery to eviscerate a movie for being corny, heavy-handed, or unforgivably maudlin. But with towering, bonafide movie star performances by Streep and Hanks—respectively the best they’ve been in years—and an assured, almost dutiful directorial energy from Spielberg, The Post becomes less a movie than a mission.
It should get a standing ovation from the same snarky media newsrooms that might ordinarily groan at its clichés and earnestness. It would be too easy to be jaded about a film like this, which plays well in an otherwise cynical, oppressive time.
In fact, the film is positively invigorating, partly because of how it winks at the conversations happening in our country—in newsrooms and beyond—in its dialogue.
Streep’s first monologue as Graham is about the need to invest in skilled reporters, “because quality and profitability go hand in hand.” (That whooping you hear right now is from journalists across the country cheering at that line.) She warns Hanks’s Bradlee of the dangers of ignoring a female readership. Later, Bradlee passionately implores, “We can’t let an administration dictate our coverage just because they don’t like what we print about them in the newspaper.”
This is all just in the first 15 minutes, if you’re just wondering how aggressively on-the-nose this film is going to be.
As Bradlee, Hanks is perfectly blustery, infusing the newsman with a wily sense of humor and that Hanks-ian nobility that makes his Everyman characters believable heroes, but not infallible. His scenes with Streep are, to be a bit earnest ourselves, something quite special—just to see stars of this wattage acting out scenes with this subject matter, let alone with such crackling chemistry.
When two stars collide in space, one of two things happen: they merge together to form a new, larger star, or they collapse into a black hole. The same can often be said about Hollywood, so a pairing like this should never be considered a surefire success. And it’s actually Streep who surprises us.
This isn’t a performance defined by mastery of accents and mannerisms, or the careful calibration of kookiness that has come to characterize her recent, albeit excellent, performances. It’s a controlled, deliberate performance, steady and steely so that, by the time of her third act triumph, she hasn’t exhausted you with histrionics, but rather roused you with her determination.
The spotlight given to Graham in this telling of the Pentagon Papers story is already political. She was infamously excluded from All the President’s Men in 1976. But the significance of her presence doesn’t stop there.
Each scene in which she is the only woman in the room is shot in a way that ensures you notice. It’s a motif repeated with a frequency that veers on obnoxious, but hell if it’s not effective. Plus, at this time in our culture, if there’s any point that deserves to be not only repeated, but underlined, bolded, italicized, blared in neon, and then tattooed onto everyone’s minds, it’s this one.
In truth, the visual is jarring each time, though anyone who knows anything about the demographics of newsrooms and boardrooms shouldn’t be entirely surprised. But aggravation builds as she’s routinely talked over and ignored, forced to smile through her teeth or bite her tongue for propriety’s sake. It’s a wonder blood doesn’t come pouring out each time she’s finally permitted to open her mouth. When she finally stands up for herself, you’re instinctively on your feet applauding, too.
The extent to which the film is a crowd-pleaser would border on pandering if it wasn’t so carefully edited, seducing you into being a willing participant in the patriotic joy ride. The conference call in which Graham gives the green light to publish is easily one of the year’s most thrilling scenes.
Through it all, Streep and Hanks are joined by a murderer’s row of acting favorites, from all walks of stage and screen: Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Matthew Rhys, Carrie Coon, Alison Brie, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods, Bob Greenwood, and Tracy Letts.
But it goes without saying that the most significant supporting player in the entire ordeal is Donald Trump himself.
Without spoiling too much about the final scenes, there are lines of dialogue clearly meant to shame our current president for his treatment of the press and manipulation of facts, news, and even our country’s citizens. Just as clear is the filmmakers’ warning of what might happen if he continues.
“The way they lied, those days have to be over,” Bradlee says at one point in the film. “If we don’t hold them accountable, my god, who will?”