Review: “The Post” brings spectacle and drama to journalistic history

Steven Spielberg’s latest film honors the power of the press in the face of censorship and avoids melodrama.

The Post, a film chronicling the release of the Pentagon Papers by journalists played by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, was wide-released on Jan. 12.

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The Post, a film chronicling the release of the Pentagon Papers by journalists played by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, was wide-released on Jan. 12.

Maddy Folstein

“The Post,” Steven Spielberg’s latest sweeping historical drama, opens in the midst of a war — in the thick of a jungle in Vietnam, to be exact. It’s a heated, bloody opening to a movie about the austere world of Washington politics and the papers that cover them. 

As “The Post” shifts its focus from the gruesome Vietnam War to the steely, paper-filled halls of The Washington Post, Spielberg keeps all the drama, movement and turmoil from his first setting. “The Post” covers the leak of the Pentagon Papers, a historic survey of US involvement and abuse of power in Vietnam. When The New York Times is blocked from publishing any more of the documents, The Washington Post is faced with the decision of publishing the papers to share the truth with the public, or to stay quiet. 

The difficult decision is complicated by the new leadership of Katharine Graham, played by Meryl Streep. Taking over the paper after her husband Phil Graham’s death, she holds the power of the paper but fights against her friendships with government officials. Streep’s performance is brilliant — she balances Graham’s introspection while finding her identity as a publisher with daring turns of commanding the room. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, it’s stirring to watch her find her footing in a room full of men who doubt her abilities.

The rest of Spielberg’s cast is not to be ignored, either. Tom Hanks as The Washington Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee, is persistent and stubborn, conducting his team of reporters with ease. Hanks similarly commands the film’s extensive ensemble of well-known actors with a refined polish — Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Michael Stuhlbarg, Matthew Rhys, Bradley Whitford, David Cross, Bob Odenkirk and more play various characters in the drama surrounding the Pentagon Papers. Without outshining each other, each actor plays out their moments appropriately.

With a driving John Williams score playing underneath it, “The Post” can feel as suspenseful and dramatic as Spielberg’s other films. Shadowy exchanges in seedy motel rooms and phone booths borrow from film noir classics. Nixon, the primary “villain” in the film, is never fully seen. Instead, Spielberg chooses to film the president through the windows of the Oval Office. He talks on the phone and paces around his office, with real dialogue from Nixon’s extensive tape recordings playing over the phone. The president is a reflection of the looming executive power and a dark symbol of the censorship on screen.

This spectacle could easily turn into melodrama. But, the film’s focus on the mechanics of a newspaper is punctuated by montages of the newspaper in edits, production and distribution. By filming the reality of publication with such drama, Spielberg elevates the power of the press.

“The Post” rallies viewers behind the First Amendment, but sometimes in these rallying calls, the movie stumbles over its own goals. Even with Streep at its helm as the influential Katharine Graham, the other female actors in the film seem to be overlooked.

As Bradlee’s wife, Sarah Paulson delivers a stirring monologue about Graham’s position as the only woman in the boardroom. Spielberg incorporates subtler nods to gender disparities, emphasizing Graham’s singularity when she walks through a crowd of female secretaries to enter a male-dominated boardroom. But, with renowned actresses like Streep and Paulson onscreen, it’s natural to leave the theater wanting more, though this could easily be a byproduct of the limited power of women during this era.

Phil Graham popularized the phrase “journalism is the first rough draft of history.” “The Post” is the more polished revision of this story — its suspense and well-rounded performances dramatize history. Even the last notes, in which Spielberg hints at the Watergate break-in, make the course of history cinematic fodder, as if the next turn of events could play out as “The Post 2.” 

Rating: A-