One of the most surreal moments of a year at the movies full of them is seeing Bob Odenkirk and David Cross sitting in Tom Hanks’ office talking about the sanctity of the press in a Steven Spielberg movie. Odenkirk makes sense being there, to be fair; he’s become a bankable star through Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul that it wouldn’t feel all that out of the ordinary to see him in an Oscar-forward prestige movie. But Odenkirk and Cross together makes it seem like these two chuckleheads from Mr. Show with Bob and David managed to sneak on the set when no one was looking, smuggle their way into wardrobe and makeup and 70’s themselves up so none would be the wiser. And surrounded by the likes of Hanks and Meryl Streep and Tracy Letts and Bruce Greenwood and Michael Stuhlbarg and so on and so forth, it feels especially odd. Not in a bad way, but in one of those ways that makes your head tilt. Maybe Spielberg just really liked Mr. Show. Who knows?
The film in question is The Post, a film Spielberg made remarkably quickly presumably in reaction to the Trump administration’s attacks on the press (he wasn’t hired to direct until March of this year and the film has a limited release on December 22), takes on the true story of the Washington Post’s fight to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971 as a reaction to Richard Nixon’s strong arm tactics over the New York Times’ publishing of the same information. The film, through a screenplay from Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, pitches the battle through the eyes of the Post’s publisher, Kay Graham (Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) as they decide whether to move forward publishing excerpts from the leaked report about the US involvement in Vietnam prior to the beginning of the war. Kay has to contend with a board of directors (including Letts and Bradley Whitford) on the verge of taking the paper public who believe litigation could hamper their stock price, Bradlee’s reporters (Cross, Odenkirk, among others) who want to go public to protect freedom of the press, and the paper’s lawyers (Jesse Plemons, Zach Woods) attempting to figure out the likelihood of the Nixon administration’s wrath. At the end of the day, though, the decision lies with Kay.
Make no mistake, this is a huge cast, but it's Streep's film. In some ways, she has become a bit of a parody of herself thanks to the big, flashy roles that she takes on that inevitably lead to yet another Oscar nomination (Florence Foster Jenkins and Into the Woods, I’m looking at you). They begin to bleed together and resemble little more than signal noise, but she breaks out of morass deftly in The Post. Her story, in addition to the scuttlebutt about protecting the first amendment and freedom of the press and so on and so forth, is navigating a man’s world where no one thinks she belongs. She’s just a woman who happened to get control of the family business when her husband died. What could she possibly know about this business? Especially with all these experienced men around. Spielberg leans into that aspect of her story by having Streep spend the entire film surrounded by powerful white men who constantly lord over her and invade her space so they can override her position. It’s a far more subtle turn for her, more about small facial tics and reactions on the margins and how that factors into her composure and decision-making process. It’s well-framed against the bluster of Hanks, who spends much of the film barging into rooms uninvited to make people’s lives harder. He invades her space too, but in an entirely different (and arguably more manipulative) way. He’s an idealist set against the pragmatism of the WaPo board of directors, with Streep stuck in between. They’re great, the ensemble is great, everything about the design of the film (Kaminsky’s cinematography, Williams’ score) is great. But the design of the script is what makes The Post feel special.
You would expect The Post to find kinship in the other well-known journalism movies of the day, whether it’s granddaddy of them all All The President's Men or more modern distillations of the form like Zodiac and Spotlight (also co-written by Singer), but Spielberg is smart enough to know the differences between the story he’s crafting and these other newsroom capers. Those films are about the investigation. They’re confronted with mysteries and cover-ups and conspiracies they have to ferret out, whether it’s Catholic Priests molesting children, a serial killer running rampant in San Francisco, or the biggest scandal to hit the Presidency (so far, at least). The Post isn’t about that. It’s about information already out in the world, and the fight to keep it out there. Bradlee and his reporters were already scooped by the New York Times. They’re playing on the back foot until Nixon tries to shut their competition down, changing the game and giving them the opening they need to leap from decent local paper to national journalistic force. It’s a movie about boardrooms and decision-making far more than investigation, and the script’s structure and Spielberg’s direction reflect that.
Spielberg’s still gotta Spielberg, so there are plenty of moments that bring in a bit too much treacle or cliche to make The Post a purely satisfying picture. There’s some speechifying that, alongside swells from Williams’ score, feels overly manufactured. The opening, a Vietnam war sequence set to Creedence Clearwater Revival (because of course it is) is both entirely superfluous and eye-rollingly familiar (the point of the sequence is to establish motivation for a character who doesn’t factor into things enough to require motivation), and the ending seems to reimagine the film as Rogue One: An All the President's Men Story in a way that feels entirely too on the nose and seems to set up a sequel that couldn’t possibly be made. You cut five minutes from the beginning and five from the end, and The Post is a demonstrably better movie. But that doesn’t discount the meat of the sandwich, a skillful and satisfying look at the process and the importance of freedom of the press at a time when those institutions are just as under attack as they were under Nixon. It’s a period piece that feels remarkably present, a little bit of magic from the master that allows the film to become a parable as much as it is a history. And yeah, he hits some of those themes hard, but this is Spielberg we’re talking about, and that’s to be expected. It’s easy to write off a lot of his recent films, whether it’s War Horse or The BFG or The Adventures of Tintin, as flights of fancy and little more, but The Post shows that when it counts, he’s still got it when he needs it. And when we need it, he nails it.