Halfway through Steven Spielberg’s The Post, the audience I saw it with erupted in applause. They were not applauding some clever dramatic twist or some breathlessly edited action sequence. The audience was applauding at a scene where Meryl Streep’s Kay Graham stammers out an order during a telephone conversation.
The phone conversation is of course about one of the most consequential moments of American journalism that is not only a result of some thirty years of government and military malfeasance but also the beginning of the end of the Nixon white house. Should The Washington Post publish a top secret government funded research paper about the length, breadth, and effectiveness of the Vietnam War, known as “The Pentagon Papers”?
It is a credit to Spielberg and his screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer that whether or not we’ve read The Pentagon Papers or All The President’s Men doesn’t hinder our enjoyment or understanding. They never hold our hands, but they never lead us into the weeds either. They put the story into a historical context for us without making us feel as if we were being talked down to.
Spielberg and his writers illustrate to us the full debate of the moment. Often times, since we are living after the fact, we are burdened with the knowledge of the ‘correct course.’ When watching or reading stories about consequential historical events, it can be jarring to discover there was in fact an argument to be made against the decision. Hannah and Singer allow us to fully understand the ramifications both personal and professional to Kay’s decision to publish “The Pentagon Papers.”
But The Post is not content to make merely a political statement, though it is above all else a political statement. They instead utilize one of the greatest cinematic treasures of the later half the twentieth century, Meryl Streep. Amidst all of this they give us a subtle nuanced story of a woman coming into her own.
Streep’s Kay is a woman thrust into a destiny that is not of her choosing. Her father died and left The Washington Post to her husband. Then her husband committed suicide, and she found herself a widow and owner of the paper. Add to all of this Kay’s decision to have The Washington Post go public to help the paper reach at the very least solvency. To top it all off her editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), seems preoccupied with the absence of a reporter named Neil Sheehan (Justin Swain).
Sheehan works for The New York Times but is considered by all to be one of the best reporters in the field. Ben asks around and even sends an intern over to the Times to see what Sheehan is working on. If Sheehan is the best reporter, and if he can’t be found, then sweet holy mother what is he working on?
Early on we see Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), hired by Secretary of State Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), to observe the war effort. When confronted by McNamara on the flight home about how the war is going, Ellsberg sighs, “Honestly sir what strikes me most is how much nothing has changed.” McNamara’s face falls as he agrees with him. He rails about the idiocy and futility of the war. As the men leave the plane, McNamara is stopped by reporters and asked about the war. He smiles and assures them that everything is okay.
Then, Ellsberg steals the McNamara papers that detail the lies and cover ups by the government from the Rand organization and contacts The New York Times. This is what Sheehan is working on. When The Times breaks the story, the Nixon White House wages war and sues the paper to bar them from publishing any more.
Understand that Robert McNamara is friends with Kay. We see numerous parties at her house and McNamara is always there. She knows him and trusts him. Throughout much of The Post, we learn of Ben’s ties to the Kennedys. Kay herself has flown on Air Force One with President Johnson and his wife Lady Bird. It’s often commented on about how the current political class and the political reporting class can be somewhat incestuous and thereby taint the reporting. The Post shows us that it used to be so much worse while also showing us why these relationships could be damaging both for the news and the public.
Thus, Spielberg articulates the need for a free press as well as the notion that a news organization’s sole responsibility is to the governed and not the government. Steeped in period detail, The Post never feels stodgy or stagy. Instead it feels as if it’s happening right before our eyes. Perhaps because, as Spielberg is saying, it is happening right before our eyes.
That among all of this wonderfully tense historical drama Streep gives a subdued powerful and effective performance is icing on the cake. Her Kay is a marvel to behold. At the beginning of my review I mentioned a scene where she is on the phone. It’s a powerful scene, but it’s only powerful because we’re allowed to see Kay’s journey. We see the shy nervous Kay of the boardroom slowly become the angry Kay who confronts McNamara about his lies.
The scene where Kay confronts McNamara isn’t some wildly overdone emotional outburst. It is instead a quiet scene where Kay demands answers, advice, and also sadly ends a friendship. Spielberg time and time again visually illustrates the world in which Kay lives. At a dinner party she is hosting, the men start talking politics and the women excuse themselves. The editor of The Washington Post leaves the room with the other ladies. The other women commend her for having ‘a day job’ and marvel at how she does it.
When The Post goes public Kay goes to Wall Street to ring the bell. We see her walk through the lobby filled with women, the secretaries, and then into the stockroom filled with board members, men. Visually, Spielberg is showing us Kay’s journey. She’s going from being asked to leave the room to entering the room whether they like it or not. By the end, after the Supreme Court has made the decision, the other owners make a statement. Kay demurs and quietly leaves through the crowd on the side. As she leaves, the camera follows her as a crowd of women part for her and smile. Kay smiles back filled with unease. She never meant to be anyone’s idol but here she is. One could say it’s easily a metaphor for Streep herself and how she is viewed by so many actresses.
When Ben brags to his wife Tony (Sarah Paulson) that they will be publishing the papers, he is clearly fishing for compliments. But Tony is not effusive. Ben argues that it is a brave thing he is doing. She nods. “It is brave…for Kay.” Tony argues that Ben will be celebrated by his peers no matter what happens. But Kay is risking a company she loves and many believe she shouldn’t even have.
Janusz Kaminski shot The Post just as he has shot some fourteen other films for Spielberg. But The Post, while undeniably Spielberg, doesn’t look like a typical Spielberg movie. The phone scene with Kay is shot using a sort of high angle close up profile shot of Streep’s face. The Post feels like a Spielberg movie, but Kaminski seems to be relishing in static close ups.
There is one scene where the reporters at the post celebrate tracking down Ellsberg and getting their own copy of “The Pentagon Papers.” They discover via Walter Cronkite that the President has barred The Times from publishing any more. The scene is back lit with minimal lighting in the foreground. The crowd is bathed in light, the television at the front of the screen shining in the dark. Slowly they start to migrate over to the television. They begin to peel off dejected at the setback. One by one they leave until Kay remains half lit and alone.
The Post has a farm team of character actors. Carrie Coon, Dave Cross, Bob Odenkirk, Alison Brie, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons, and even the ubiquitous Michael Stuhlbarg. This is one of those movies where every face is a recognizable one, and we are delighted to see them, as if we are seeing an old friend.
Hannah and Singer’s script is impressively layered and comprehensive both in narrative and in what it covers. The way they both inform us of the context as well as showing us character relationships through dialogue is breathtaking. It is far and away one of the best scripts, if only for the scope of what it tackles and how well it navigates the almost byzantine amount of facts surrounding the story itself.
In sum, Spielberg has made a politically and socially important movie that is also somehow one of the best crowd pleasers I’ve been to all year. The crowd cheered and clapped throughout. There wasn’t a comic book hero or pop culture reference to be found, yet more than any movie this year The Post feels immediate and relevant. It also just so happens to be a great movie going experience.