Steven Spielberg was in the middle of post-production on Ready Player One and decided to “take a break” from it to make this film. It’s the kind of stunt Spielberg has done a few times in the past (Jurassic Park/Schindler’s List, The Lost World/Amistad, Minority Report/Catch Me If You Can, War of the Worlds/Munich), but it is crazy prolific for a director to have two films release in the same year, let alone on multiple occasions. Bringing this up isn’t to act as an apologetic for The Post’s lack of quality, but how in awe of the filmmaking on display for a film that began development last February and filming at the end of May.
Because The Post is an amazing film. It was good enough to earn the number 3 spot on my top ten list, and for a few reasons. Unlike Spotlight, this is not a procedural film about investigative journalism. Like Spielberg’s Lincoln and Bride of Spies, it shows a time of our nation being in existential crisis, and demonstrate that the best way forward is by holding fast to those core American values. These films could easily be overly preachy, but they aren’t because the characters at the center of each of these films are compelling and human.
In this film, it is Washington Post publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep). The paper was Graham’s family business, but her father had passed the mantle of responsibility to her husband. It was only after her husband’s death that she took over the business. Part of what makes The Post so compelling is that Kay Graham sits at the center of its three major themes.
The first is the responsibility of the press to a functioning democracy. The Post doesn’t hold up the press as infallible or sacred, but bound by a sense of duty to the public. The leak of the Pentagon Papers was a huge revelation about the lengths the US government had gone to in order to mislead the country about Vietnam. It happened over several administrations, and the film colors this as a huge violation of the public trust. As the fourth estate, the press is part of how citizens in a democracy can check the power of the government.
The second explores how the business needs (profit motive) of a newspaper come into conflict with its responsibility to the public. While it is easy to say that quality reporting will result in higher circulation and ad revenues, being in the crosshairs of a presidential administration as vindictive as Nixon’s would put any to the test. Devout capitalists will surely say that The Washington Post became the national influencer that it is in part because of the Pentagon papers, which proves this theory correct. But the virtue of The Post is that it captures the feeling of being in such a high pressure situation.
And on top of this, Kay Graham is a woman wielding power. The Post may be at its most powerful when it is being a “woman in the workplace” drama. While Executive Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) always treats Graham with the respect of her position, others in the company privately and publicly doubt and undermine her leadership skills. Even Graham herself struggles with this role, as she wants to be able to host lavish dinner parties for the Washington elites as well as publish a newspaper that has a meaning and an impact. Having Bob McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) only complicates the matter even further.
Streep gives an amazing performance. It is easy to praise her, but this is above and beyond her work of the last decade or so, playing a much more layered and complicated character in Kay Graham than she has recently. The struggles of conscious, the exasperation at not being taken seriously, and the sheer exhaustion from everything weighing on her all play across Streep’s face and body language in a way that feels incredibly real.
And once again the spellbinding work of cinematographer Janusz Kamiński is on display. No one else seems to capture light in a way that is completely and utterly perfect. The Post is not a flashy film, but it is perfectly shot and composed. It isn’t about capturing a gritty world, but allowing the actors to play across sets that are just perfect.
Compelling, relevant, and featuring some of the best filmmakers working at the top of their game, The Post is the first must-see film of the year.
The Post opens at the Ritz Five today, and wide release next Friday.