Checked out the new Spielberg directed, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep starring movie The Post last night. This is the film about the Washington Post and their risky move to publish articles on the Pentagon Papers. Those were the stolen top secret memos detailing thirty years of American government lies about Vietnam, going across multiple presidents and political parties. You might say this is a specifically timed movie that speaks to issues of the importance of the press to speak truth to power and how the president might use his bully pulpit to try to squash that power. You’d be right, too.
This is a movie split down the middle. The first half is actually kind of staid and boring. It doesn’t move crisply, have particular tension or suspense, and is pretty by-the-book, unthriling stuff. Maybe like a newspaper without an interesting story? Maybe it’s intentional? I don’t know… but I was distinctly not involved emotionally or mentally in that first half. Disturbing given the great cast and Spielberg at the helm. But maybe that was intentional since the second half of the movie was crackling and emotional (maybe to a fault) and it certainly saved the entire movie.
If the movie was more consistent, it’d be one of the best movies of 2017. As is, it’s still a sold, smart look at people doing their job and doing it well in the face of a political system set up to stop them. Unlike something like Spotlight, this isn’t a film about the process of investigating a story. The story already exists… it’s handed to them. First to the New York Times (which gets an injunction to temporarily stop publishing) and then to the Washington Post. The suspense and low-key thrills are based on getting the documents and whether or not they are legally allowed to publish, whether or not they SHOULD publish, and whether or not the president and judiciary can stop the presses.
Given we already (theoretically) know they did publish, it takes some skill to make these scenes suspenseful. But Spielberg goes for his bag of tricks and manages to make it work. It’s easily arguably that he pulls off one too many emotionally manipulative tricks and puts the press too much on a pedestal in some schmaltzy scenes… but I fell for those scenes. And, yes, it was easy to relate the arguments for a free and open press to maybe a time where the current president is calling into question any media that he disagrees with.
Tom Hanks does his level best Tom Hanks (including some classic Tom Hanks shouting) but (surprise surprise?) Meryl Streep just knocks it out of the park. Her part is not remotely showy or Oscar-baiting… she’s reserved, quiet, and mousy. But what she delivers with tone of voice, pauses to gather herself, and simple silent acting is pretty great. She gets an emotional and intellectual character arc and she nails that change with her acting skills.
Streep’s character owns the Washington Post but she’s a woman in a man’s job (in 1971) and grew up in a time when women didn’t talk business and politics. Her character starts quiet and has the most growth in order to face down all the angry men who don’t want her to publish. So the movie is just as much about women in power as it the power of the press. The film makes a number of show-don’t-tell scenes of a woman’s place in 1972 (like a dinner party that starts to get into politics so the ladies take that as their cue to go to another room for more “ladylike” talk). It’s both good film-making, timely film-making, non-soap-box film-making, and excellent acting.
Another key character is the Power of the Printing Press. Since the film in set in 1971, we get a lot of scenes of the Washington Post’s printing press. Not the usual fast-paced shots of newspapers getting printed as they scroll past the camera. But the actual physical, laborious task of creating the print platters, one letter at a time, to create each page. And when the press spins up, it’s a quaking beast that non-verbally shakes the upper floors letting them know the story is printing. Again, great film making but also a cool look at bygone technology.
So, yes, I respect this movie a lot. The fist half is a drag, probably intentionally but that doesn’t make it drag any less. The second half is more crackling, fun, and suspenseful. Even if the full movie was just the second half, this wouldn’t be the best Spielberg could do but it’s up there with his less fantastical works. I like the film and I like what it says, even if its message is a little starry-eyed. The press isn’t that perfect but better to have imperfect press than no press, I say.