Released: January 2018.
Stephen Spielberg’s latest venture gifts us something truly special: Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, two titans of the screen, together at last. The marketing alone attests to the weight of the names, the primary poster not even featuring their faces in favour of displaying only their forms with their backs to us and their names proclaimed in loud lettering. With Streep as Katherine Graham, owner of The Washington Post by default and Hanks as her editor Ben Bradlee, the pair fight to keep the paper current and vital as The New York Times hits the jackpot with classified documents detailing decades long cover-ups surrounding the Vietnam War. With everything hanging in the balance for the paper and their personal freedoms at stake, Graham and Bradlee walk the tightrope not too high above treasonous actions in favour of serving the American Public in the name of transparency and righteousness. Interesting ethical questions are raised by court cases and as the characters waver between certainty of startling clarity and mind-numbing indecision, we are privy to the inner workings of quotidian staples: the actions of the government and the workings of newspapers. It’s a tango very much at the centre of modern consciousness, this dance to the death between the press and the president and as with every day in 2018, there’s endless debate over the White House’s right to control information of public interest and even to control the press absolutely.
I’ll tell no lies here…this film features my all-time, every category most admired and adored actors in Streep and Hanks. And I won’t lie about their performances: they are a formidable tag team in this fascinating story. Hanks plays Bradlee with a self-assured smugness that is ill-fitting to Hanks’ back catalogue and is therefore a fantastic performance. Bradlee bulldozes his way through life hunting down the next big thing; ambitious and at times thoroughly tunnel-visioned, he refuses to look before he leaps and thus lands the team in some sought after hot water. He is at times lacking in both patience and common courtesy, but he gets the job done. Forced to consider the female perspective as a man of the 70s, the character undergoes nothing resembling a transformation, but does come to an important realisation, thus cementing the film’s place in the current female empowerment movement. With so many parallels drawn between the 70s and now, Spielberg seems to be asking what exactly we’ve been doing in the interim…and he seems to have a point there. The direction is a stylish blend of fly-on-the-wall perspectives, real historical audio, enveloping long shots and leisurely scenes which follow the action in ways which make the pregnant pauses all the more charged and gripping. As a film selling itself as a thriller, it takes its own sweet time in unwinding its narrative and for the most part that works, but there are times when the pace seems incongruous even while the faster sequences play their part beautifully.
Streep is, as ever, completely immersed in a new character. As Katharine Graham, she is the woman in the unlikely and somewhat unenviable position of breaking the glass ceiling of news rooms by taking the reins at The Washington Post following the death of her husband. A woman in a swaggeringly male world, Graham has her work cut out; she finds herself presented with too many options, too many knowing voices and not enough of her own convictions being loud enough for the menfolk to hear. Streep’s portrayal of this accidental figure of the business elite (even if it is a simple ‘family business’ and relatively small paper next to its competitors) is somewhat playful and unassuming if a little troubled to begin with, but this character does undergo a transformation, however unwillingly. There are echoes of Streep’s performance in The Iron Lady when Thatcher was dismissed for her femininity as this powerful figure of the Hollywood landscape is again cast opposite naysayers as a female in need of men to function in a man’s world, however irksome. Spielberg’s direction of Streep and the most pivotal scenes as Graham leaves behind indecision in favour of an iron will (quivering a little in the wind, but steely nonetheless) is cinematic magic. Such moments sell this film; the fiery sparks between Graham and Bradlee as power dynamics shift, dilemmas arise and decisions have to be made; they are ultimately a heroic if unlikely duo, heading a small paper leading the way for the big dogs to follow.
Other performances impress here too, but with such powerhouses front and centre very much carrying the story on their shoulders, it’s easy to sideline them unfairly. Alison Brie, playing Lally Graham, enables a layered perception of Graham; offering a view of the personal Graham as the professional Graham faces the battle of her career, Brie plays a gentle privileged daughter not entirely invested in the paper but certainly invested in the safety of her mother. Jesse Plemons is fantastic as the highly strung Roger Clark, tasked with protecting and challenged every step of the way, Plemons’ performance is urgent and intense throughout. Carrie Coon carries the baton for Team Women in the workplace as Meg Greenfield, the driven reporter standing her ground and doing a damn good job. Sarah Paulson offers Bradlee that vital food for thought as his devoted wife Tony Bradlee; standing by her husband regardless, she is more than maker of sandwiches and mother of children, she acts as enlightener and conscience when Bradlee can’t see past the enticing red letters of classified documents. Bob Odenkirk gives an enthralling performance as the righteous and formidable Ben Bagdikian – swaying only momentarily in his resolve, he pushes the cause from the very bowels of this unsteady ship and Odenkirk gives a thrilling performance.
It’s no secret that Spielberg’s mission was to make this film with a swiftness which demands comparison with the current US administration. We are living in a time of daily scandal and near-hysteria whenever a particularly alarming tweet lands. Secrets are being prodded at and it feels like it’s only a matter of time before the next large scale political scandal will arrive. For a political thriller released into such a climate, I was expecting sensationalism and classic hazy Hollywood dramatisation, but what I got instead was altogether more measured and sophisticated. The film is powerful precisely because the drama is kept personal to our two protagonists, while the political slant grips onto realism to maximise the parallels with the papers being printed daily in the here and now. It’s an impressive film, no doubt, yet while I recognise and praise the realism, I can’t help thinking that the movie was sold as a classic edge-of-your-seat, sweeping, grandiose Spielberg epic when in fact it rests on understated performances from a truly brilliant cast. The lack of sensationalism, the lack of heavy manipulative scoring and other tactics we’ve come to expect left me under-whelmed at points in which I should have been gripping onto the arm rests.
In brief, The Post examines a fascinating set of moral questions as well as offering a thrilling narrative. It features, frankly, the very best talent on offer right now. It is an important movie about key events released in an unstable political climate, which of course makes it of great import on many levels. It’s undoubtedly a truly great film that should be seen and I will definitely watch it again, but I wouldn’t say it’s a film which grips entirely or merits re-watching year after year as is the case with some of Streep and Hanks’ previous work.