The story of The Post is that Spielberg first read the script under a year ago. While working postproduction on Ready Player One he somehow got permission from Warner to go make the thing. Tom and Meryl got attached a month after that and they were shooting a prestige period drama by summer. It’s not something that you really need to know, the film feels seamless even without that information. I mean, it’s not like the man has ever been guilty of turning out a non-functional film, but you get the sense that the hurried breathlessness and claustrophobia of the joint was influenced by its rapid production.
Y’all can see why watching it that they wanted to get it out so fast. The story of a corrupt and venal president lying to the public and attempting to use the executive branch of government to silence criticism. The story of the truth seekers with the ability and conviction to take him to task. The story of the woman who used the power available to her to defy the system. It plays well.
Streep is Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post. At the time a small family paper, she took the position after her husband’s suicide. Spielberg shoots her amidst a great sea of men struggling to hold court in a position that, she has not yet expanded to fit. She is of course fantastic in the role, it’s Meryl Streep for fucks sake. Hanks is Ben Bradlee, the irascible editor in chief, committed to the ideals of the free press and of quality journalism but with a chip on his shoulder that he and his paper aren’t taken seriously by the major players. He is of course fantastic in the role, it’s Tome Hanks for fucks sake.
Then, like third billed is Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian the Post’s investigative reporter who follows his gut and chases his leads and eventually finds his way across something big. He’s great, was always going to be. He got old, developed a face interesting enough for prestige TV and all of a sudden has been reborn as a bankable dramatic actor. Seeing him in a Spielberg joint feels close to revelatory. He just dances through the script with grace and nuance and finds the moments where he can release that comedian chained inside himself and it’s wonderful. Pay attention to a late dialogue he has with Jesse Plemons about the identity of his source, it’s masterful.
So after this opening coda, the plot hounds us through the week that starts with the New York Times publishing confidential government documents regarding the United States’ international relationship with Vietnam leading up to and during their failed war. Nixon then bars them from publishing anything and as history goes, the Post defied the ban to spill those secrets anyway. Part of its power lies in the procedural, it’s not proclaiming its politics, it’s rarely even about nobility and resolve, it’s just a bunch of people doing their jobs.
The Streep stuff is as close as it gets to commentary. In a slight B-plot we watch her struggle to reconcile her new position and reportage with her place in Washington high society. Another side story involves the struggling newspaper’s public offering of stock in order to remain in business, and the threat that a prominent lawsuit would bring to the business’ future viability. It is important that all of this weight must fall onto a woman, it’s the way it tends to go anyway, ambitious men protected in their follies by the handy presence of a fall-not-guy.
But it embraces that, becomes about fear and power and doing the right thing. When we climax at the Supreme Court the script don’t let this become some courtroom drama for ten minutes. It’s not about that, we don’t want to hear about law, what does legality have to do with anything that happened? We just saw about two hours of people sweating and deliberating and ultimately being good. Who cares if you don’t own a newspaper? That’s not what the film is about, it’s about getting you to get up and be your best.
The political world is hot garbage right now. Do something. We don’t get many agitprop films unless they’re coming from agitprop filmmakers, think Ken Loach and try not to think about his troubling anti-Semitism. They come across bold and didactic, beliefs firmly held and delivered fierce, preaching politics but without compelling action. There are part of Loach’s socialist vision I admire, but he offers us no way to fight for it.
The Post is more humble, it is an argument for goodness, for decency and the mobilisation of resistance against corrupt power no matter how small. It’s a real Spielberg thing to divide a portion of time to even the smallest characters. Here he presents interns and typesetters and engineers, they all have their part to play, they are all engaged in a heroism of some sense.
We watch how we act, we must be aware of how we come into ourselves, how we engage with the world. I carry a sense of shame everywhere that I go that I am not doing more. I must, it is imperative and yet I sit and fail to make the world better. The Post rouses you, holds you and makes you want to fight. I am weak and broken and useless. I will try my best anyway.
The Post is currently screening in UK cinemas.