In 1971, The Washington Post and The New York Times published revealing, damaging and highly classified documents involving the Vietnam War. These documents, called “the Pentagon Papers” and leaked by US military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, unveiled shocking revelations regarding the conduct of the Vietnam War. In this Steven Spielberg-directed dramatization, Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of The Washington Post and Meryl Streep plays Kay Graham, the owner of the paper who was faced with the controversial, potentially illegal decision to publish the government documents.
The Post is one of the stronger films Steven Spielberg has directed in years. His stately, downright stodgy choices of material and determinedly old school approach to filmmaking is still intact but the subject matter has clearly lit a fire in his belly and that makes a world of difference. While the look and feel of the early 1970s are created with eerie precision, it’s the modern day parallels that will have everyone talking.
The Post is obviously meant as an anti-“Fake News” commentary, a tribute to real journalism and a testament to reporters who challenge powerful political figures. When characters declare that their articles provide a contrast to a politician’s formulated public image and how controversial news items need to be reported no matter what, the film is blatantly tipping its hat to present day events.
This is the first time Spielberg has ever depicted the Vietnam War and his being late to the topic shows. The establishing scenes of battle during the war are bloodless and surprisingly unimpressive. Likewise, the brief glimpses of war protestors (the “1-2-3-4, we don’t want this f@#$%^& war” chant has been sanitized to obtain a PG-13 rating) and a rushed footnote on Watergate. Oliver Stone covered this material far better decades ago.
I don’t mean to pick on Spielberg–if there’s one filmmaker who inspired my love of movies at a young age and fueled my imagination more than anyone else, it’s him. A list of the dozens of great, classic American movies he’s made would seem redundant at this point, so here’s a different list: his films The Terminal, The Adventures of Tin Tin, War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies and The BFG are all respectable and masterful in their production values, but none are that interesting or especially good. It fills me with dread to think that a young moviegoer would hear Spielberg’s name and think of his claustrophobic, museum-ready chat-a-thon Lincoln.
At times, the star power is almost too much. Hanks and Streep have never worked together before and have an easy chemistry that’s fun to watch. They’re better in their individual moments, when we’re not focusing on how two of the biggest movie stars on the planet are sharing a scene. Bob Odenkirk, playing Washington Post reporter Ben Bagdikian, has the best scene: when Ben meets his essential lead, he’s living fearfully in a motel, with the Pentagon Papers spread out across the room.
Near the end, The Post begins to feel less like a historical recreation and very much like a glossy Hollywood movie. When the Frank Capra finish comes and Hanks and Streep are seen standing next to one another, arms crossed, it feels far too smug and self-satisfied.
The troubling 2005 Munich remains Spielberg’s last great film but this is an interesting footnote in his historic film career. While The Post is clearly Spielberg’s All The President’s Men, he’s too antsy and flamboyant a filmmaker to completely mimic Alan J. Pakula’s directing style. The Post is imperfect and none-too-subtle but still a thing to marvel: of all things, here’s a passionate, politically charged work from Steven Spielberg.