Some movies manage to meet their moment in history. This perception has really stuck with me after seeing Spielberg’s thrilling “The Post” – which brings together Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks for the first time. The film conforms the director’s latest addition to a masterful civil liberties trilogy, also comprised of “Lincoln” and “Bridge of Spies”.
“The Post”, set in 1971, dramatizes the story that preceded the publication of the Pentagon Papers, whereby Katherine Graham, head of the Washington Post at the time, and Ben Bradlee, the paper’s Director, faced the decision whether to challenge Nixon’s Administration by revealing years of government secrets about the Vietnam War. The timeliness of the story could not be more striking: A President pointing fingers at journalists threatens newspapers, dare they decide to bring politicians on the carpet for their lies.
The way the movie is able to capture the zeitgeist of our present moment and throw bridges with our reality is nothing short of astonishing: It is a story about the pursuit of the truth, about how difficult it is to stand up, and about the costs attached to staying firm to one’s principles.
In the hands of a different director, “The Post” could have become a heavy-handed and too-on-the-nose propaganda film, but Spielberg knows how to turn this into an exciting and all too important crowd pleaser. It is imbued with a disarming 70s aura, with Kaminski’s (“Schlinder’s List”) grainy and immersive cinematography managing to make the newspaper room roar with life and suspense.
And while the movie does great justice to its political thread, it also amounts to a moving vindication of Kay Graham’s role as the leader of the paper; a role which, let us not forget, was inexplicably omitted by “All the President’s Men.”
Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Graham is astounding: Her subtle performance manages to get across Graham’s inner conflict – and the way Streep builds a narrative about her character, with each resolved gesture and gaze filling her with the stamina to ultimately make a decision about the publication, amounts to one of her finest performances to date.
Tom Hanks is also terrific as Ben Bradlee, filling the screen in every scene he is in, thanks to a particularly witty screenplay that allows him to bring in a more humorous tone. The rest of the ensemble cast, although taking a backseat to Streep and Hanks, is also excellent: Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys or Carrie Coon are all at the very top of their game, and are each given a moment to shine.
There is something rather extraordinary in seeing the presses roll to the epic score of the music composer John William, reminding us of just how critical Katherine Graham’s decision was. Ultimately, “The Post” is a triumphant love letter to journalism and the woman who risked a great deal to tell the truth. When our attention is being diverted from looking in a direction where we might learn something, journalists’ integrity can prove to be our last shot at shielding our very freedom. Yet, Spielberg warns us, standing up is not always easy: How far the press is ready to go in its call for resistance will determine whether democracy can survive in the midst of darkness.