The Post isn’t a bad movie, it’s a safe one.
There’s never been a more optimal time to release a movie about the necessity of the free press. It’s why I recommend seeking out the fantastic documentary, Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press. This isn’t to say that Steven Spielberg’s look at the need to hold governments accountable via a newspaper isn’t relevant, but The Post just hits too many check marks to be memorable. Aided by a cast of performers who are all doing good but not particularly challenging work, The Post is the filmic equivalent of your mom’s mashed potatoes: you know they’re good; you can depend on them, but there’s better out there.
In a wake of a damning report published by the U.S. government highlighting how four different presidents perpetuated a series of false information about the need for the Vietnam War, a whistleblower steals the report and disseminates it to two newspapers: the New York Times and the Washington Post. The latter, run by Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) finds themselves in conflict when the Supreme Court demands no paper publish anything further regarding the report.
Director Spielberg filmed this back-to-back with another nostalgic riff, Ready Player One. This could easily account for how safe The Post feels. The movie has a formulaic rise and fall from the minute Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) walks out with the document that would be more infamously known as “the Pentagon Papers.” This lone moment of suspense is never repeated in the same manner – Ellsberg’s story has already been documented in film – but transitions towards the fear that Graham and Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) will go to prison. In reality, the movie’s central conceit is that the censoring of the newspaper by President Richard Nixon would be the true horror of horrors.
It’s impossible to dissociate The Post from the reason for its existence. Lines perfectly suited for the trailer are spouted out by superlative actors who discuss that governments need to be held accountable, “it’s how they lied,” etc. There’s definitely a need for a film that ties into the media’s current contentious relationship with the President, but The Post never rises above being a Very Important Movie that knows it’s important. This self-indulgent attitude could account for why everything feels very Hallmark. The music cues swell at just the right moments, the camera selectively closes in on black telephones or Hanks’ concerned face; everything just feels…done.
The film’s obvious, and it is obvious, inspiration is 1976’s All the President’s Men – in fact, The Post’s ending with the Watergate break-in acts as a lead-in to that movie. The problem is that film so minutely captured a compelling moment and The Post can’t justify Graham and Bradlee’s plight. The actual court case where the Post argues their need to publish the papers isn’t even shown.
What remains is a movie confused about what it’s saying, only that it needs to say something. If anything, what it says about feminism is more compelling. Streep’s Kay Graham is the new publisher of the Post, a job she inherited from her deceased husband. Much hullabaloo is made by the male investors that Graham can’t handle the paper, comparing her to her husband. One telling moment sees the men resign to a dining room to talk shop while Graham, and the other wives, go to the living room to talk fashion. The film’s obviously interested in Graham’s risk as a female publisher in a male dominated society but all the assertions made seem trite, wrapped up in a nice bow by Bradlee’s wife, Tony (an underutilized Sarah Paulson), who supportively tells her husband what a risk-taker Graham is. For her part Streep is solid, but it’s one of many performances of late that are simply good from the legendary actress.
The same thoughts can be said about Tom Hanks, whose Ben Bradlee is the foil to Graham. Where Graham walks on a tightrope to be taken seriously by the men on the board, Bradlee is everyone’s friend or mentor. He’s a swell guy who had Jack Kennedy’s ear. Watching Hanks and Streep meet conspiratorially, speaking in hushed whispers, wondering if the other “has the papers” makes for a great moment, but it’s often hard not to believe the two are being pushed apart to give them equal space for big Oscar moments.
The Post isn’t a bad movie, it’s a safe one. Served with a heaping helping of important message that gets doused by the star wattage and the need to be grandiose, The Post feels like a movie created by a man who knows even his weakest effort is still really good. Steven Spielberg doesn’t make anything that will blow your hair back, but it’s a movie worth watching. Even a chuck under the chin from your weekend dad is worth enjoying when it happens.