Not Fake News: "The Post" timely, finely crafted and superbly acted

The Post (2017)
116 min., rated PG-13.

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg is now known for making two kinds of movies: exciting, sweeping blockbusters with a soft spot for sentimentality and intimate, potentially dry (or, in the case of 2012’s “Lincoln,” actually dry) fact-based dramas with a soft spot for sentimentality. “The Post” falls into the latter category as a historical drama about the free press, although it is talky without being dull or stuffy. It might not seem all that Spielbergian on the surface, but even for a film set in 1971, “The Post” is pretty timely and urgently told in its view on trusted journalism and fight for free speech. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Back when The Washington Post was running out of money, the newspaper was entrusted to publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) by her late husband, who was left with the paper by Kay’s father and later committed suicide. Amidst her board of male members who dismiss her, Kay is able to trust editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), who tries turning puff pieces like the coverage of Tricia Nixon’s wedding into hard-hitting headline stories. When White House military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) offers The New York Times and The Washington Post classified documents of over 7,000 pages, it turns into an opportunity to print the government’s cover-up about the Vietnam War that spanned the terms of four U.S. Presidents and hold the government accountable. It comes down to Kay’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, which comes with risky consequences; she could lose the company and go to jail, her co-workers could lose their jobs, and lives could be destroyed. Can the Post get the scoop and expose government secrets before their rival paper?

Written by first-timer Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (2015’s “Spotlight”), “The Post” serves as a precursor of sorts to 1976’s newsroom classic “All the President’s Men” before Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s downfall of Richard Nixon’s administration, so much that this film’s conclusion actually sets up the Watergate Scandal. The film may take a while to get the wheels rolling, but once it does, it is absorbing and reliably well-acted across the board. As the film rests on the side of the press, the repercussions of Kay Graham being prosecuted by Nixon looms over it all (and the 37th president is represented here with actual voice recordings, while he embodied by an actor from afar in the Oval Office window). Director Steven Spielberg remains on the grounds of Graham, Bradlee and the reporters, whether it’s during meetings or the shuffling through of documents, and there's an undeniable watchability to seeing people be good at their job.

Working with Spielberg for the first time, Meryl Streep is predictably terrific but terrific all the same as Kay Graham without bringing an ounce of self-conscious fussiness to her portrayal of an unsung heroine who probably isn’t widely known to the layman. Crippled by her self-doubt by being one woman in a board of sexist male egos who don’t think she has the resolve to make the tough choices, Graham undergoes the biggest arc, acting reserved while facing obstacles, until finding the courage to assert her voice. It’s one of Streep’s least showy roles after playing Florence Foster Jenkins, Julia Child, and Margaret Thatcher, but more riveting for the subtle nuances she brings to Graham. Tom Hanks gets to be more rascally and hot-tempered than usual as Ben Bradlee, who was already portrayed by Jason Robards in “All the President’s Men,” and puts his own stamp on the muckraking editor. This is another first for Hanks and Streep to share the screen together, and of course, it is a delight to watch two legendary actors at work, as Graham and Bradlee occasionally clash but ultimately respect one another. Down the line, there is also a highly impressive deep-bench supporting cast, including Bob Odenkirk, Carrie Coon, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Pat Healy, Alison Brie, Bradley Whitford, Michael Stuhlbarg, Zach Woods, and Broadway talent Jessie Mueller, just to name a few.

Any film revolving around publishing a newspaper story needs a goose of energy, and luckily for the most part, director Steven Spielberg brings tension and urgency to the writing room with crisp, fluid camera movements (courtesy of Spielberg’s longtime collaborator Janusz Kamiński) and 1970s period details with the cigarette smoke made palpable. As the inevitable outcome approaches, the climactic phone call in the newsroom still holds one in bated breath, and it is a treat to see the sight of an old-fashioned Linotype machine, producing the written word in hot lead. Though “The Post” falls a bit short of feeling remarkable, it is still a rousing, finely crafted grown-up entertainment that, not unlike “Spotlight,” gives audiences the thrill of he or she knowing a story before it breaks, no matter one’s own political ideology.