It’s obvious that director Steven Spielberg admires the fourth estate and women. His latest outing, The Post, his ode to both, resounds much like a beautifully printed coffee table tribute, one that you can’t help but admire and fall in love with. It’s also on-the-dot timely, considering how both of Spielberg’s favorites have been in focus most of last year-end and the new year.
Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, the movie streams along at a bouncy, uplifting pace, capturing the perniciously misleading stance that successive US presidencies (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson) stooped to, as it turns out, to “to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat” in the Vietnam war. In 1965, State Department military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Mathew Rhys, suitably haunted and on-the-edge) is privy to the two-faced stand that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) smoothly and unflappingly takes after they land on US soil, back from a trip from Vietnam. His look as he walks away from McNamara on the tarmac says it all about Ellsberg’s stunned reaction, propelling him, years later, to break into the military contractor, Rand’s, drawers, containing detailed files on the United States’ progress, or lack of it, in the Vietnam war (later known as the Pentagon papers). These, he leaks to the New York Times’ Neil Sheehan, who then proceeds to begin publishing the documents in said paper.
Here’s where Spielberg also lets in The Washington Post owner, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), as she’s having a dry-run with her company’s chairman Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts) before meeting the all-male-chauvinistic board to discuss the Post’s public listing on the stock market – a move that will, hopefully, pick up the company’s flagging fortunes, and enable it to survive the death of its most recent owner, Phil Graham. Kay’s not confident about facing the herd of looking-down-at-her men, and Beebe’s her only lifeline.
This scene is masterfully executed as Kay manages to get her lines and numbers perfect, and yet, when she’s facing the menacing board, not a word gets out of her diffident demeanor, and Beebe’s got to take over. On the paper front, Kay has a regular run-in with her editor-in-chief, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), who’s now growlingly unhappy that the New York Times has gotten ahold of what promises to be the biggest story this side of the political century. And then, a mysterious girl drops off a package at the Post’s office, while reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) realizes his connect with Ellsberg to get ahold of any lead, any clue, and hopefully more of the Pentagon papers. In the meanwhile, President Nixon gets the Attorney-General to slap an injunction on the Times, prohibiting them from publishing any more articles from the leaked papers for a couple of days.
Spielberg frames all these events in a 70’s color-tint, more Woodstock than Washington, but gripping you in every frame. He gently injects all the goodness of a heartwarming thriller and mixes it with a packet of societal mores and gender discrimination, never preaching, and yet subtly laying it as it is; and all the time, the movie develops with the urgency of a just-in-time delivery, also satisfactorily lubricating the eye-glands that are set into motion when good-hearted folks watch well-meaning brethren slide toward triumph, all the stumbling blocks making a timely cinematic appearance to make the climax a breathless countdown to the final roll of the printing press.
And yet, despite the regular Spielbergish touches, it all works. If I was still making a career choice in my life, this movie would have sealed my future as journalist. And that’s because The Post romantically dips you into the sleepless nights of the glow of the photocopier, the sturdiness of the printing plate, the aroma of the ink print, and the thrum of the press drum roll.
What also makes the movie a winning triumph is its outstanding cast. The ensemble delivers a terrific performance all around – Sarah Paulson (playing Bradlee’s wife, Toni), David Cross, John Rue, Michael Stuhlbarg, and others – they’re all very, very good. Then, of course, there’s Tracy Letts with his dependable, strong-shouldered act that’s so very effective.
Bob Odenkirk, surely looking at an Academy nomination in a supporting role, is fabulous. His wannabe act is a winner, and the scene where he fumbles with change at a phone booth is so very naturally done. And later, when he feels the assuring rumble of the press beneath him, Odenkirk’s beautiful expression speaks for all of us.
And headlining it all are Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. Both the actors, with their uncanny and stunning ability, dissolve into the characters they’re playing, not for a moment letting you in on their acclaimed status. Hanks is so very good, glowering and charging into the situation with the ferocity of a bull-seen-red (unlike the hung-over bulls of today, who drink it) and the kindness of a patriarch, keeping Kay honest and being her lighthouse, even if unintentionally blinding her sometimes. And his verbal parleying with Meryl Streep is one of the highlights of the movie. When he keeps her in her place during a lunch meeting – “keep your finger out of my eye”, or when he keeps landing up at her doorstep unannounced and she tells him she ought to give him a key; or when he asks her, “Can I ask you a hypothetical question?”, and she protests that she doesn’t like hypothetical questions, pat comes his answer, his delivery impeccably natural, “Well, I don’t think you’re going to like the real one either.” The two are life’s unadulterated pleasures to watch as they interact for the first time in a Spielberg enterprise.
As Kay Graham, Meryl Streep simply glows in her role, lending it such a natural heft, you can’t keep your eyes off her. Look at her as she stumbles into the men’s club for lunch with Ben; or as she faces all the doubting, patronizing and powerful men, her dialogue delivery keeping you hooked on for she magically pauses mid-sentence when you don’t expect her to, making you wonder what she’ll say next. You simply hang on to Streep all through the movie; for, it is she who represents what’s still wrong with work-places in the 21st century, and you feel we’re all running on a treadmill where we’re covering the timelines, but not moving forward.
Look at her as she, having been interrupted mid-speech, makes the toughest decision of her life, and then returns to make her speech, holding her reading glasses in her hand, trying to read the next point in her notes – her hands tremble oh so subtly, but just if you care to notice. As Toni tells her gloating husband, “To make this decision, to risk her fortune and the company that’s been her entire life, well I think that’s brave.” Meryl Streep lives that brave decision in this stupendous role. And some of the best shot sequences are in Kay’s house, as the camera moves along the living room, the chairs, and across the various characters who take the story forward. Which is where Kay asserts her position so emphatically and yet delicately, leaving Fritz chuckling proudly and Arthur Parsons (a superb Bradley Whitford) slapping his leg nervously.
The Post is also so verily in sync with today’s times and hence feels eerily timely, as if connecting the 70’s to this brave new online world, where so little seems to have changed. It makes you think about the tenuous, specious, and precious relationship that politicians share with the press, as they spar during the day and hobnob at cocktail parties in the evening; it makes you think about those in power who hound those who purport to tell the truth. It makes you revisit the judgement that was spelt out in 1971, and you realize it’s as if time has all but stopped: “A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.” It makes you think about the selling out of media houses to their favorite parties and leaders. And it makes you think of how true one line in the movie rings even today: “The press is for the governed and not for the governors”. In these times of alternate truth, fake news, viral madness, and social-media-gratification, all three would do well to remember that.
The Post is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) Mind the ink and the war violence.
Director Steven Spielberg Running Time 1h 56 min
Writers Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Stars Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts
Genres Biography, Drama, History
Watch the trailer of The Post here: