Streep and Hanks bravely lead a mishandled telling of an incredible story.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, plus it’s about a U.S. government scandal – The Post has Oscars written all over it like an obnoxious headline. Tales of journalistic courage, freedom and victory are known to be an easy sell to the Academy, critics and audiences. All the President’s Men, which looked at the events leading to the exposure of Watergate (to which The Post is closely linked) swooped four gongs. Most recently was Spotlight in 2016, which told the story of The Boston Globe’s incredible battle against the Catholic Church and their efforts to expose the merciless child abuse cover-up – that won Best Picture. So it’s natural that The Post has garnered a bit of hype (take one look at the posters and you’ll the see the plastered five-stars and grand declarations of it being one of the greatest films ever). However, unlike ATPM and Spotlight, The Post needed subbed.
When the lies and deception regarding the Vietnam war across four presidencies comes to light, The Washington Post’s publisher, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) join the fight between the press and the government, seeking to publish the documents which expose the scandal.
Opening in Vietnam, you’d be forgiven for expecting a high-calibre of war sequences from the man who helmed arguably the greatest war movie ever made, Saving Private Ryan. However, the strong tinges of greys and beige overpower the atmosphere, and a rugged, indirect approach to the camp and the subsequent fire-fight result in a lack of gravitas. In scenes where you should feel the need to duck out of your seats, the shots thunder through your body and the panicked commands of the soldiers chilling you to your soul, it felt like a lousy, ‘I guess we better do this’ flashback.
The narrative initially follows Dan Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) and his internal conflict. Early tangles with the Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) show him to be unsure of the politics of this war, and of course, then comes the leap to become a whistleblower. It’s strange that for a prospect so nerve-shredding (stealing government secrets isn’t exactly like nicking a biscuit), I felt absolutely nothing in the cinema.
We soon get into the press side of things, with introductions to Hanks and Streep. Streep marvellously plays Graham, a hesitant woman in an unforgiving situation, with men constantly on the sidelines looking to knock her from her throne. It’s a complex character, but that’s no problem for the likes of Streep. Her slow transformation from withheld and co-dependent to strong-willed and authoritative is an inspiration. Hanks gets the chance to sink his teeth into a role outside his usual pedigree, which as a member of the audience, is an absolute joy. He’s stubborn, a little arrogant, but has a huge, patriotic heart and an endless need to ‘get the story’; as he says, “the way they lied, those days have to be over”.
That there, that’s a good line, right? There’s a number of great lines, some of which you’ve seen in the trailers (Odenkirk’s Ben Bagdikian telling the flight attendant it’s “just government secrets”, Greenwood’s McNamara’s towering, fiery lecture over Streep about the power of the presidency, plus others). Regretfully, there are great lines that are buried in unnecessary monologues. Liz Hannah’s first-time script is still an impressive debut (with the assistance of Spotlight‘s Josh Singer), but the overall focus on character-driven melodrama rather than the thrill of the true story is a mistake both on the writers’ part and Spielberg.
Pacing too is an issue. While in the final stretch The Post gets into its stride, we spend so long learning about what other papers are doing, it begs the question as to how long does The Washington Post’s story actually need to be told properly? It’s an unevenly distributed narrative. As a character study of Kay Graham, it works more proficiently, but as a high-octane journalistic drama, there are very few times it allows the audience to connect with the drama. Considering the current political disaster-scape that is the United States, The Post has a remarkable headstart – it’s historical, and it’s relevant. But while the speedy production (it was completed in under a year) was likely an effort to tune into that zeitgeist, the rushed end-result doesn’t capture the heart, soul, sweat and tears of an event that deserved a hardened look.
It may seem like an odd criticism, but it’s too cinematic for its own good. The super high definition cameras, the sweeping, grandiose shots, the consistent reliance of the tensity of phone calls, the Jesus-like comparison of Graham as she descends into a crowd of admiring women should be a powerful image, but ends up a bit cheesy – it’s all too much. In Spotlight, you feel like you’re in the office, you feel the mental strain of the reporters, you feel their impassioned, moral conflict, you feel their feet on the ground and the anxious scribble of their shorthand; you’re invested. The Post feels like a movie, simple.
The cast as a whole ensemble are impressive, however. Odenkirk, in a characteristically rare performance in which he is more restrained, is terrific to watch. Bradley Whitford as a mightily unlikeable Arthur Parsons is expectedly excellent. Smaller players all deserve their praise too, such as Sarah Paulson, in a strangely minor role as Bradlee’s spouse Tony, manages to be a warm, relatable figure for the audience.
The story of The Post is, beneath the surface, an amazing one. Going away afterwards, it makes you consider the implications of the pressure on the press today. The freedom to serve the governed and not the government is somewhat under-appreciated often in contemporary society, and if this film doesn’t remind you of that, you’re part of the problem. Perhaps that’s what Hannah, Singer and Spielberg wanted, but they don’t allow enough time for the tension to build to that heart-pounding sensation that, despite the fact you know where its going, makes you doubt history.