The most fun you’ll ever have at a civics lesson, Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” is a brassy, swaggering Hollywood entertainment that consists primarily of people standing around in rooms arguing about the First Amendment.
The film is a none-too-thinly veiled polemic insisting that a free and adversarial press is vital to the survival of our democracy, but in the guise of one of those zany newspaper comedies from the 1930s. It’s breathless, a little goofy and an altogether grand old time at the movies.
Working from a spec script by Liz Hannah (re-written by “Spotlight” scribe Josh Singer) the film stars Meryl Streep as The Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, a beloved beltway socialite who inherited the paper after her husband’s suicide and in 1971 found herself smack dab in the middle of a minor constitutional crisis. The short version is that The New York Times obtained a classified study commissioned by former defense secretary Robert McNamara exposing decades of lying and disinformation by the U.S. government regarding the Vietnam War.
Naturally, the Nixon White House tried to block the Times from printing anything further. But when The Post’s bulldog editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (a gruffly hilarious Tom Hanks) gets his hands on a copy of the study, it falls upon Graham to decide whether or not publishing these Pentagon Papers is worth the risk of financial ruin and a possible prison sentence.
In synopsis I suppose this sounds pretty dry, and it would probably play that way were Steven Spielberg not the most preternaturally gifted showman of our time. He sends his camera careening around the newsroom, frames his ink-stained wretches as mini-Indiana Joneses and shoots a visit to the New York Stock Exchange like a dinosaur attack.
Spielberg made this movie fast — bored with the post-production doldrums of his upcoming effects-heavy virtual reality adventure “Ready Player One” and plainly pissed off about America’s political situation — he started shooting “The Post” at the end of May 2017 and screened it for critics a couple of days before Thanksgiving. That’s incredible.
Possibly due to the hectic shooting schedule, there’s a headlong, screwball energy to the picture that’s intoxicating. The bustling ensemble cast rat-a-tats through their dialogue, with terrific turns from “Breaking Bad” vets Bob Odenkirk and Jesse Plemons, alongside “West Wing” alum Bradley Whitford as a hissable front office stooge in a Claude Rains bowtie. Spielberg thrives on orchestrating chaos, trying to see just how many reporters he can cram into one room, or how many characters can climb onto a phone call (there are an awful lot of extensions at Graham’s mansion.) The spirit is always buoyant and joyful, even when we’re being lectured.
Following “Lincoln” and “Bridge of Spies” as the third part of a loose constitutional trilogy, “The Post” finds Spielberg once again rolling up his sleeves and digging into what it means to be an American, exploring how the truths we hold to be self-evident are often the result of dogged negotiations and mule-headed tenacity. For my money, those first two films are the finest he’s made this century, rare occasions of Spielberg working with screenplays (by Tony Kushner and the Coen brothers, respectively) as dazzling as his visual technique.
Hannah and Singer’s script suffers from a stilted expository device by which characters are constantly telling each other stuff they already know for the audience’s benefit. (I swear half of Streep’s scenes begin with her asking someone, “Do you remember that time when you said…”) It also sticks the two biggest soapbox monologues back-to-back, so Sarah Paulson (playing Bradlee’s endlessly patient wife) explaining the point of the movie to her husband is followed immediately by Graham explaining it all again to her daughter (Alison Brie, because everyone from all of your favorite television shows is in this film).
Yet despite the screenplay’s stumbling blocks it’s difficult to overstate just how brashly entertaining this picture is. Hanks and Streep give such confident, old-fashioned movie star performances that while you may never forget that you’re watching Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, you'll also remember why exactly they’re Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. The latter even sells her groaner of a closing line — which is either the film’s best joke or its worst. After three viewings I’m still conflicted.
As usual, Spielberg errs on the side of spelling everything out. (Nobody’s ever left one of his movies missing the point.) But at the same time there’s simply no one better at distilling a picture into images that sum up the story. “The Post” is bookended by two beauties. The first finds Graham ascending a staircase to the NYSE offices, stepping alone into a room full of old, rich white men who look right past her. This visually rhymes with a shot near the end of showing Streep leaving the Supreme Court and walking down the steps surrounded by young women gazing up at her, beaming with adoration, bathed in the almost heavenly glow of Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography.
Is it corny? Absolutely. Does it work like gangbusters? You bet. That’s Spielberg.