FILM REVIEW: In Spielberg’s THE POST, Vintage Hollywood Looks Back at Old Values
Few people have done as much to define the trajectory of American Cinema since the last decades of the twentieth century than our visionary American treasure, Steven Spielberg. In his latest offering, The Post, he has delivered another perfectly-tuned machine of filmmaking, a movie that fires on every cylinders while retelling an extremely important tale with a tinge of wistful nostalgia. I hate to state the obvious but, quite simply, Steven Spielberg is a genius.
The Post narrates the Washington Post’s race against time to obtain and decide whether to publish the infamous Vietnam-related Pentagon Papers at the same time that the growing rival New York Times was publishing them. The movie takes place at the dawn of a now bygone era, where newspapers began to metastasize and, like the TV networks of the 1976 film Network, fall under shareholder control.
But the Post in 1971 is still held by the Graham family, and its aging matriarch Kay (played by the superb Meryl Streep), faces several critical decisions. These include how to handle the demands of a newfound series of venture capitalists who could not have come at a worse time—the moments when the Post, led by vivacious editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), must decided whether it should publish the papers at all and incur the wrath of the Nixon administration.
It is against this backdrop that Spielberg sets his methodical, exacting, and precise movie. Nothing is taken for granted, but nothing is sped up either. Spielberg is a perfectionist and somewhat of a law nerd. He did not need the Assistant Attorney General who calls Bradlee to threaten the paper to identify himself as future Chief Justice William Rehnquist, but he does. Spielberg is clearly doing a lot more than just narrating a story—he is teaching, and he is exulting.
The target of his praise is nothing more and nothing less than those values he believes make America great already. His last three major films—Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, and The Post—are a trifecta of American history and of American values. It would be incorrect to think that Spielberg is wishing for the return of the past as if those were better times. The nation was fighting over slavery in one of those movies and foreigners, criminal defendants, and women are all treated reprehensibly in the others. Spielberg has boarded those subjects not because he wants us to think things were better back then, but to remind us of critical junctures when the nobler instincts, based on American virtues like equality and justice, prevailed.
Spielberg’s trajectory as a filmmaker has followed his own life closely. He has moved past the action-packed, fantastical films (E.T., Jaws, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park) that he helped define, that made him famous, and that augured today’s era of action movies. The delightfully creative fantasies of a young man gave ways to the anxieties of the middle-aged (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan), which in turn have now ceded to the contemplative and nostalgic views of an aging visionary.
But anyone complaining that the first part of The Post is “slow” or “drags” is completely missing the point. Spielberg builds the characters with stunning particularity and effectiveness. Graham weaves in and out of social commitments (and her deep political connections to some of the Democratic politicians skewered in the Pentagon Papers) and through professional responsibilities, all while being dismissed implicitly because of her gender. Bradley wears his passion on his sleeve and faces similar struggles at home (his wife, played by Sarah Paulson, is a minor supporting player).
By the time you get to the climatic sequences, you are more invested in these characters than you ever could be if you had gotten to know them through screaming matches or car chases. Their words and pitch-perfect acting are their own explosions and only Spielberg can make movies that feature so much law and so many trips through the federal courts this compelling.
And The Post features more than just Spielberg’s signature precision. His usual collaborators, and then some, all join to make this one of the best movies of the year. John Williams’ score is perhaps one of his more muted, but long-time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has found a perfect balance of tone—sepia, muted gray—in the American history trifecta of Spielberg’s last movies. Editor Michael Kahn also returns, keeping us in check during the faster-paced sequences of the latter half of the film. Others join the party. Michael Stuhlbarg, everywhere this year, is amusing as the publisher for the Times, and Tracy Letts is compelling as the reality check pessimistic that has both Graham’s and Bradley’s ear.
The Post, though, belongs unquestionably to Meryl Streep, who once more puts on an acting clinic without at all seeming like she is doing so. Ms. Streep yet again proves her range by depicting an altogether different character, one stuck in a transitory period between two eras of the life of American women. Streep never overacts, and this film, perhaps one of her most understated performances ever, is no exception. But the ratio of subtleness to effectiveness only makes her appearance only that much more impressive. She completely embodies her character and convinces you that she is her, even though you can never take your eyes away from the fact that this is Meryl Streep.
By the time the credits roll on the critically important values and principles that are at stake in The Post, you cannot help but wonder what exactly Spielberg’s sense of the future is. Is it optimistic, and these movies are reminding us of our better angels? Or is it pessimistic, and these films are his escape into a time when people made better decisions? Are they a warning sign for what we are losing when we lay waste to our values by the wayside?
In the end, The Post is all of the above. Slyly reminding us of the challenges the paper faces right after the Pentagon Papers crisis with their reporting of the break-in at the Watergate hotel, the film is well-aware that politicians have always been tricky and that there are many with dubious motivations amongst us. Spielberg, with The Post, is telling us he thinks we can and will do better.
I do not know whether he is right or not. But his latest movie is without question a reminder of a time of great talent in American cinema, one that includes so many of the individuals who have made lifelong journeys with this masterful filmmaker, and one that will not be around that much longer. History will tell if that is also true about our greater values.