What does it say about us as a society that “The Post,” director Steven Spielberg‘s insightful and intense historical retelling of the Nixon White House’s attempt to silence the press, is sadly topical today? The 1970s period piece is astonishingly timely in the era of Trump, making it not only a relevant drama but also a type of psychological horror about censorship and the First Amendment.
The film depicts the true story of the unthinkable legal battle between The New York Times and the United States government after the paper reported on a massive cover-up of secrets about the Vietnam War from a study commissioned by Kennedy and Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). The New York Times was subsequently banned from publishing the classified material (which was stolen by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) and sent to Times reporter Neil Sheehan (Justin Swain)).
After some expert investigative reporting, journalists at The Washington Post got their hands on these top secret documents (which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers), and publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) made the gutsy decision to publish them. The entire news team fearlessly risked the future of the newspaper and braved threats of going to jail in a bold fight for the freedom of the press, rocketing The Post to its current status as a relevant powerhouse of significant reporting.
This is precisely the kind of story Spielberg excels at telling, a big, historical drama that’s handsomely directed and sharply written with an ensemble cast who dive straight into the deep end of in the Oscar pool. Streep and Hanks lend an effortless credibility to two colleagues whose relationship is one that’s built on cold banter with an ever-so-slight sprinkling of mutual respect. Rhys, Greenwood, and Tracy Letts (as Fritz Beebe) are equally strong. Often the trouble with such a large cast of pedigreed talent is that performances tend to get lost, meaning actors have to work twice as hard to stand out. Surprisingly, the actor who rises to the top is Bob Odenkirk. Odenkirk runs the gamut of range and is outstanding.
It’s nice to see that Spielberg hasn’t lost his flair for directing either. He lights many scenes with cool grays and blues, an effective contrast to his signature sweeping, fluid camera movements that accurately capture the stress and excitement of a buzzing newsroom. I appreciate that this isn’t a dumbed-down film; a working knowledge of history is required. In chasing his desire to make yet another ‘Movie That Matters,’ Spielberg plays it a little too safe with predictability, particularly in the scenes that focus on the business side of a dying newspaper versus the straight history of the event (causing the story to feel like two different movies in one).
How frightening to think of the myriad parallels to the Trump administration attempting to exert its own control over the media, selling the public ludicrous lies at press conferences and through Twitter, while their hands are constantly poking and prodding in the pie of honest journalists the world over. Our own president has gone so far as to call reporters the “enemy of the American people,” something that is chilling when you examine the present day parallels to Nixon that are depicted here.
This is the kind of film that red states hate, one that’s filled with historically accurate scenarios that’ll surely make them scream liberal elitism. Spielberg’s utter detest of Trump intermittently becomes a little too obvious, especially in his heavy-handed direction towards the end, but this is an important story that deserves and needs to be told in this distressing time of “fake news.”
“The Post” expresses the intoxicating euphoria of speaking the truth and having the courage to expose the lie, even if you’re on the losing side of a Goliath. The film’s message is more important now than ever, and I hope we won’t see history like this repeat itself.