REVIEW: The Post [2017]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 116 minutes | Release Date: December 22nd, 2017 (USA)
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
Director(s): Steven Spielberg
Writer(s): Liz Hannah and Josh Singer

“Quality drives profitability”

Let’s be real: every Steven Spielberg film is a must-see, hype-driving machine. He’s a cinematic giant who rarely chooses a project to direct without extreme enthusiasm and artistic purpose (whether the result proves timeless or not). But no one could be blamed for letting excitement crescendo higher than usual upon hearing about his latest, The Post. Still in the midst of post-production on Ready Player One, Spielberg chose to drop everything while the visual effects artists did their thing to put Liz Hannah‘s script in front of cameras as soon as possible. He saw the parallels between a 1971 free press’ struggles with an over-stepping governmental regime and that of today. He understood how crucial this tale of courage and country over party was. And we do too.

Reading about the truncated timeline utilized is quite amazing. Amy Pascal won the rights in October 2016. Spielberg signed on just before the spring of 2017. Spotlight co-writer Josh Singer came on-board for rewrites almost immediately and cameras started rolling only ten weeks later by the end of May. Here we are in December and the finished work is ready for audiences and already winning awards. Whether this result says more about the quality of the message at its center or the Hollywood clout of Spielberg to get so many jumping so soon is in the eye of the beholder. Luckily, however, no matter what your feelings are about the financial and time commitment disparity between A-list legacies and fresh up-and-coming voices, few can deny the art’s success.

You must remember how big a deal the Pentagon Papers (evidence our government knew Vietnam was an unwinnable war) were to fully grasp the heroism in printing them. We take whistleblowers for granted in this day and age with flashdrives, Tor, and digital footprints because the relationship between the press and those in power has been confrontational at best (save certain sycophantic for-profit and agenda-pushing networks) the four-plus decades since. But as Hannah and Singer’s script shows (at-times with blunt force trauma), it hadn’t always been that way. Simpler eras allowed for more trust and camaraderie as politicians, publishers, and reporters could be friends because they all had common goals within their close proximity. Now with lobbyists and donors holding sway over policy and defense strategies finding themselves rife with amoral details, accountability is king.

It had to start somewhere, though. The conflict between powers had to reach a fever pitch for the public to acknowledge a problem. Before Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (both Washington Post reporters) could break Watergate, a free press needed to be declared and upheld as free. That’s where Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) and Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) enter as Post publisher and executive editor respectively. It was their task to acquire the Pentagon Papers and then print them despite myriad challenges both legally and financially. And they had to do it at a time when presidents were positioning themselves as being above the law and above the lives of those who elected them; a time when women had seats at the table but not necessarily a voice.

Does that sound familiar? It did to Spielberg and his cast/crew. With Trump slowly unraveling as those around him face indictments and jail time while women march in the street to remind the world that men cannot dictate how they can and will use their bodies, today’s domestic fight perfectly mirrors journalist Daniel Ellsberg’s (Matthew Rhys) sentiments to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) about the Vietnam War. When asked point blank whether the on-going conflict had improved or gotten worse, his response was more damning than either choice. He said that the true horror was how nothing had changed. Despite everything that was happening and all the lives lost, neither evil nor righteousness had earned a stronghold. Our complacency allowed the status quo to continue its nightmare.

It’s hardly surprising, though, considering we live in selfish times. The only way to make things better is to take a stand and risk it all—two imperatives many aren’t willing to do. So we should put Graham, Bradlee, and their team on a pedestal. We should commemorate this historical event because it set a tone that has only recently started to falter with huge swathes of the American public comfortably entering echo chambers to the point where differing opinions regardless of truth are deemed “fake news.” We must appreciate their bravery one and all, but especially Graham. As Sarah Paulson (as Bradlee’s wife Tony) decrees, Kay is the one who had everything to lose. Reporters can divulge sources; they can get another job. She gambled her life.

So while The Post is setting itself up as a prequel to All the President’s Men where journalism as a force for change is concerned, Hannah has really crafted a story of Graham’s strength to show the world (and herself) what a woman can accomplish. This script gives Streep the goods to earn a twenty-first Oscar nomination because it shines a spotlight on Kay Graham’s evolution from the woman everyone assumed she was due to archaic patriarchal notions she herself admits to willingly following to the woman she knew she could become. We watch her quietly let the all-male Post board members drown her out. We watch her diffuse and defer when attacked by belittlement and disrespect. We watch until the truth of her power begins pushing back.

Don’t let the marketing fool you into thinking Ben Bradlee and reporters (a mix of actors with a comedic bent spanning Carrie Coon and Pat Healy to “Mr. Show” alums Bob Odenkirk and David Cross alongside a legal team intentionally set-up for laughs with the casting of Jesse Plemons and Zach Woods) are the stars. This story isn’t about how they talk Kay Graham the woman-in-way-over-her-head into doing good while Bradley Whitford‘s Arthur Parsons sows the seeds of doubt. It’s about Kay Graham the news publisher with as much or more smarts than anyone in her ear looking the establishment in the eye and declaring, “No more.” Hanks is good (save that distracting voice), but he’s only here to facilitate Streep’s transformation.

Does Spielberg lay it on thick, though? Yes. He’s keen to follow a stirring scene of emotional nuance and pride with one of blatant message pandering and than another with smack you in the face visual confirmation amidst a manipulative score. Maybe that’s Hannah’s or Singer’s doing at the script stage, but it does undercut the effectiveness of everything that came before. For an hour and half this thing was a well-oiled machine of tension, handwringing, and big questions concerning the ruled and the rulers. And it works towards a climax of superb precision across the board that says everything that needs to be said. The aftermath—while obviously empowering—can’t help but feel like gloating. Suddenly Spielberg et al. are trying harder than they needed.

But that doesn’t negate the rest. It doesn’t depreciate the wonderful showcase for Odenkirk to prove himself as a dramatic actor to those still sleeping on “Better Call Saul”. Nor does it undercut Tracy Letts‘ compassionate honesty as Graham’s trusted advisor Fritz Beebe or Paulson’s they-cast-me-for-a-reason acting clinic of a monologue opposite Hanks’ in-need-of-humility-and-perspective Bradlee. And it surely doesn’t diminish one of Streep’s finest performances in years with equal parts vulnerability and intense conviction. Her role is one that’s perfectly attuned to the current #MeToo campaign that shows women their voices matter. It’s never too late to hold those who oppress and abuse to task. The Post is a film full of men defaulting to “How will she screw this up for me?” being reminded of their place.


photography:
[1] L-R: Howard Simons (David Cross), Frederick “Fritz” Beebe (Tracy Letts), Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), Chalmers Roberts (Philip Casnoff), Paul Ignatius (Brent Langdon), Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon, seated) and other members of The Washington Post in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE POST. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise.
[2] Tom Hanks (as Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (as Kay Graham) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE POST.
[3] L-R: Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee), David Cross (Howard Simons), John Rue (Gene Patterson), Bob Odenkirk (Ben Bagdikian), Jessie Mueller (Judith Martin), and Philip Casnoff (Chalmers Roberts) in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE POST.

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