Film Review | The Post

Steven Spielberg is back with another award-baiting historical drama – this time tackling freedom of the press in Nixon-era America • 3/5

Papers, please: Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep deliver predictably compelling performances in Steven Spielberg’s latest drama
Papers, please: Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep deliver predictably compelling performances in Steven Spielberg’s latest drama

There are two living “Steves” in the field of American storytelling who appear to be experts at churning out one beloved tale after another in their chosen medium, in a way that captures the essence of that large and ever-influential nation while also appealing to mass audiences at every turn.

Both Stephen King and Steven Spielberg have pulled that rare trick of working in both pulp genres (Jaws for Spielberg, say, and most of King’s oeuvre) and more serious dramatic fare (Schindler’s List, The Green Mile) with a sustained consistency that’s truly impressive. Such binaries are, of course, an unfortunate shorthand often tainted by snobbery – deliberate, subconscious, residual or otherwise – but it’s hard to deny that they exist, and continue influence the way these stories are put together in their given formats, and transmitted to audiences.

So it’s all the more impressive to see how these two men have managed to outmanoeuvre that game so well. One would like to think it’s because they know how to get at the most primordial, “natural” nerve-centre of stories and distil the elements that will appeal to us all, and keep us going for the ride.

Well, it’s once again Spielberg’s turn to have a go at a serious drama, after the three-hour behemoth that was Lincoln (2012), but right before he releases yet another pulpy romp (Ready Player One, adapted from the bestselling virtual-reality-dystopia novel by Ernest Cline).

It’s a good thing that Spielberg’s the one at the helm of The Post, too, as his way with both actors and the camera is what really makes this talky drama sing for its supper, when it has to.

In what could serve as something of a prelude to the cult classic real-journalism film All the President’s Men (1976), The Post tells the story of how the then-ailing Washington Post was struck with a unique dilemma. Follow The New York Times’ lead in publishing details on “the Pentagon Papers” – detailing the disastrous fallout of the Vietnam War – or face prison and almost certain financial failure. At the centre of the whirlwind are the paper’s owner, the widowed Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), keenly aware of the Post’s precarious financial position and so, nervously charged with keeping their teetering investors happy. But neither is she willing to compromise on the paper’s principles, something that isn’t even a question for its battle-ready editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks).

With a crystal-eyed sense of moral clarity – never mind Stephen King, we could even link Spielberg to Charles Dickens in the way he stirs our emotions to root for “the right thing” – the characters’ main conflict is put to us early on, with clear lines drawn in the sand. So that then, the sometimes sprawling legal parameters of the story never interfere with the main through-lines of the film. It’s a move that’s compounded by Spielberg’s unassuming but nonetheless smooth camerawork. Wisely eschewing Scorcese-like bravura shots and fast editing, he instead opts for serpentine, roving tracking shots. These go down a treat when following the heady flow of a newsroom, and make us feel the pulse of the place, where in lesser hands they would simply have been boilerplate shots of office spaces.

The keen touch of humanity is also an essential part of Spielberg’s oeuvre, and he has able-bodied enablers in Hanks and Streep this time around. Just like it’s something of a given that Spielberg will deliver a well put-together film no matter what, so we can take for granted that the likes of Hanks and Streep will serve up performances ready to be drunk in with relish. This, of course, takes nothing away from the pure enjoyment of watching the pair – particularly when they find themselves at loggerheads, entirely respectful of each other as they may be.

If only the script – penned by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer – would have shared the same sense of grace and flow as the performances endow it with. While the dialogue flows well for the most part, and is punctuated by some great humour, there is always an implausible, cliched phrase to bookend every significant scene – mostly done in lieu of ensuring the audience knows just how important-with-a-capital-I all of this.

And perhaps this is always the risk with populist storytellers. They need to make sure everyone’s on board, all the time.   


The verdict

The Post is yet another “worthy” entry from that fecund storyteller of our generation – Steven Spielberg. Impeccably acted, costumed and directed with precision and care, boasting an admirable rallying cry for the freedom of the press in a precarious time, this is a drama worth savouring. However, it skates the line of “fusty” far too often to really break out of safe, comfort-zone viewing, and is likely to serve simply as yet another awards-magnet whose main function is to confirm a particular status quo, rather than excite us with its vision and jolt us into new understanding. Executed with the easy brilliance of a veteran and well-intentioned to fault, its lack of dynamism is its Achilles’ Heel.