The Post (2018)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Bruce Greenwood, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Matthew Rhys, Bradley Whitford
In an era of press embargoes and Fake News, legendary director Steven Spielberg has assembled one of the most Spielbergian cast of all time to bring the true story of the Washington Post’s publishing of Vietnam War secrets into the spotlight; the director’s latest attempt to tackle the controversial new-age nationalism sweeping his home country and engulfing world news. American darlings Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks lead the ensemble cast for a drama so rooted in truth that it abandons obvious extravagance to focus its tightly knit story on the nuggets of wonder we can find in the pursuit of truth, those we consider to be truth seekers, and the very idea of truth itself. Along with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, this may be the most relevant film of this awards season.
Like many a recent Spielberg film, there is an indication in The Post that the director is preaching his beliefs a little too loudly and a little too often, an aspect of his 21st century oeuvre that has brought somewhat diminishing returns in his less mainstream releases. It’s a point that is fundamentally built into the fabric of The Post from its very base, and it is through this very clear and definitive presentation of ideology that the film is likely to rub some people the wrong way while remaining an important and timely film to others. Regardless of the political and/or moral beliefs likely to be brought to the film from the increasingly scrutinised presentations of the press and high ranking government officials in the real-world, it seems clear in this film that Spielberg does somewhat objectively handle the content with a conviction less brash than in releases like War Horse (2011) or Lincoln (2012), telling with his camera a story that, when compared to his other directorial releases, is much like the film’s lead character – quieter, more composed, and quite obviously morally adept.
Visually, The Post is a film connecting two clearly defined aesthetic sensibilities, the combination of which have become the calling card to Spielberg’s recognisable style. On one hand there is the beautifully photographed and almost grainy presentation of long, standing shots intersected with important visual indicators that create an unparalleled classic look, while on the other hand there are era-defining camera movements and a sort of visual flair more often associated with the high quality blockbuster fare of Spielberg’s now forty plus year career. It’s a marriage of styles that gifts the film a distinctive look that brings about true moments of understated awe but ultimately leaves the film – in terms of its aesthetics at least – never truly feeling like one thing or another, as if lost in a middle ground not quite able to satisfy the screenplay’s need and demand for complete visual immersion. As a result, the film remains distant as if an exercise in observation as opposed to one attempting to include or be a source of empathy, a cleverly written and terrifically acted stage show that you have to watch from the stands.
This is, of course, not necessarily a new factor as regards the watching of Spielberg films, as the director has never been one to shy away from reminding you he’s there, whether it be the use of prolonged and momentum-shifting shots or the Classic Hollywood inspired editing techniques such as cross fades and wipes. In The Post, there are some sequences from the very top of Spielberg’s artistic arsenal in these respects, with a number of notable sequences earning the distinction of being some of the better directed moments in film from the past 12 months. In many ways, this film feels like an exercise in spotting the very best moments of an incomparable filmmaker and, though these moments seem to be sporadic, they remain important not only to the art of the film but also to the reception of it.
At the centre of the film’s might and force however, remains the duo of central protagonists played by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Even Spielberg, a director straddling the line between style and substance, was conscious enough of the power of his cast to gift them the resources (shot length, framing, scene pacing, etc.) needed to perform to the incredibly high standards we’ve become accustomed to. Streep in particular is fascinating to watch as she personifies the continued existence of workplace sexism with an astute power and confidence that seems plighted by the prejudices of her time; she’s a woman attempting to gain comfort in her own power and responsibility but ultimately struggles with the idea of realising her own potential. The actress, nominated for several acting awards this season, plays Kay Graham, the heir to The Washington Post, who is terrifically well written by screenwriting duo Liz Hannah and Josh Singer but is encapsulated by the acting decisions of Streep herself, with the actress shining particularly brightly when asked to portray shock and disgust through the guise of polite acceptance. Hers is an acting powerhouse unlike any female actor in the history of cinema and is one that needs a talent the level of Tom Hanks to oppose her when she’s performing to such a level.
Hanks is particularly strong in The Post, revisiting the techniques of some of his more astute performances to bring a sense of almost unrelenting conviction to a character who was of course demanding of such. In many ways, Hanks’ character – newspaper editor Ben Bradlee – is the mirror image of Streep’s Kay Graham in this film, presenting a kindness and compassion through the underlying anger and strict principle of his desire to be the source of a greater truth. Bradlee’s journey is representative of the compassionate man’s journey through changing times as regards gender roles, just as Graham’s is representative of the aspirational woman’s journey, an aspect of Hannah and Singer’s written work that elevates the film beyond a simple recounting of events and into a strictly modern ideological environment; an aspect of their work encapsulating of their overall ability to contextualise the story and bring about a source of emotional attachment.
Working just as hard from an emotional and ideological perspective is John Williams, the composer of the film’s beautifully written score; a soundtrack of tension underpinned by wind instruments more typically associated with American national pride. Williams is legendary for producing scores encapsulating of a “we can do better”, or “look at how great we’ve been” attitude across the works of Spielberg in particular, and in The Post this seems to be at the forefront of his music, reinforcing the very nature of the story’s ultimate goal: to present the truth seekers and barrier breakers as the ultimate patriots to the American flag and, indeed, the American dream, regardless of the current trend to denounce such people as trouble makers or liars in the current political landscape.
The Post is, then, a true-to-life film telling the story of an important moment in America’s history that beautifully unravels into a challenge towards contemporary ideologies and trends. The film itself is of the highest quality in many technical aspects, with the cast – particularly Streep and Hanks – doing a phenomenal job at presenting the hardships of their characters’ decisions and ultimately the state of the patriarchy, but the picture does remain distant from true involvement courtesy of Spielberg’s visual choices and the way in which some aspect of the story are presented with quite broad strokes. There are so many film industry professionals working at the very top of their game on The Post yet it remains somewhat outside the realm of greatness, so although John Williams’ score, the lead performances and the screenwriting deserve a lot of recognition, the film as a collection of these elements fails to move outside of the realm of something-to-look-at and therefore never engages emotionally in quite the same way as is the case with many a Spielberg release or 2018 Oscars front-runner. Watching The Post is like witnessing the printing of a newspaper, fascinating but somewhat removed from your involvement.