Steven Spielberg has been directing movies since the early 1970s, while Meryl Streep got put on the map as an actor of note 40 years ago with “The Deer Hunter.” In the decades since, they’ve both worked as prominent figures in the American film industry, making it shocking that their paths haven’t crossed before now (though Streep did have a voice-over cameo in Spielberg’s 2001 masterpiece “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence”). “The Post” finds Streep playing Kay Graham, a publisher who led The Washington Post after her husband, the former owner of the paper, took his own life. Graham is looking to get The Washington Post’s presence expanded by taking it public on the stock market, while executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is searching for a hot new scoop that can help his paper compete with The New York Times, which just published a number of incriminating documents that implicate the U.S. government’s presence in the Vietnam War — and by proxy sending thousands of young men overseas for combat for reasons motivated largely by bravado.
With Bradlee’s trusty confidante Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) hot on the trail of a potentially big story for The Washington Post, both Graham and Bradlee’s individual ambitions for the paper end up colliding in response to the White House barring The New York Times from publishing more leaked classified documents. The sanctity of the free press is under siege, a towering prospect that is examined through a small-scale lens in an interesting departure for Spielberg, whose films tend to be grand spectacles that span multiple countries and years. For “The Post,” most of it takes place in either normal or occasionally seedy locales, while the events themselves take place over the course of a few days.
Going for a more intimate scale benefits the screenplay penned by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, who manage to pen an interesting tale of people who recognize they’re on the cusp of history. One of the best scenes of the film has Badikian meeting up with a crucial source in a hotel room. Instead of a grandiose score and sweeping monologues punctuating the meeting, their exchange is fraught with tension and unease. Bagdikian is just a normal guy whp has found himself in circumstances that are anything but normal.
It’s the actions of everyday people that help the gears of history to keep on churning, and “The Post” gets some truly fascinating cinema out of that truth. Other themes explored include the pressure and stigmas faced by a woman leading a giant newspaper operation, as well as an intriguing concept of realizing your friends are also human beings who are as capable of being corrupt as anyone else. Both Graham and Bradlee must come to terms with the more morally complex world that has been right under their noses all along.
Streep delivers her best performance since “Doubt” in 2008, playing a more restrained character compared to the more stylized individuals she’s played in recent motion pictures, excelling as an actor when it comes down to tiny details in her performance. It’s a wonderful lead turn, and Tom Hanks compliments it with a surprisingly unorthodox performance for him as he plays a gruff, no-nonsense guy — who couldn’t be more of an opposite of the kind of performances we all typically think of as default Hanks performances. An absolutely stacked supporting cast (including Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons and Alison Brie) ensures that even the smallest characters leave an impression.
Directing all of this is, of course, Steven Spielberg. It’s impressive just how thoughtful his camerawork is, especially in terms of the movement of the camera and the way the camera is positioned, such as the way so many of the shots are utilized to convey specific themes or ideas in the tiniest details. Spielberg showed he can make dialogue-heavy movies visually compelling in the past with features like “Lincoln” and “Bridge of Spies,” and he does that again here with “The Post.” Additionally, frequent Spielberg collaborator John Williams turns in an excellent score. (Does that guy ever miss on his scores?)
As I wind down this review, it only just occurred to me now how “The Post” is a movie packed with top-caliber, flashy Hollywood talent both in front of and behind the camera that’s so successful because it places an emphasis on the actions of everyday individuals. That may sound like a paradox to some, but to me, it just sounds like the formula that results in a wonderful thriller — which “The Post” very successfully is.
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends and… watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com