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Culture » Film Reviews

Civic Engagement

The Post once again finds Steven Spielberg teaching entertaining lessons in American democracy.


  • 20TH Century Fox Films

If America was going to get a cinematic civics teacher, it certainly could have done a hell of a lot worse than Steven Spielberg. It's not as though the most successful entertainer in the history of movies has given up on frivolity, with recent features like The BFG and the upcoming Ready Player One. But in recent years, the 71-year-old director has grown more contemplative, using his gifts behind the camera to tell stories about how America can be the best possible America, from the complex legislative sausage-making of Lincoln to the defense of civil liberties in Bridge of Spies. The Post seems like part of an unofficial trilogy with those two previous films—a spirited, engaging exploration of freedom of the press that is bound to feel even more pointed in the age of another president openly hostile toward the Fourth Estate.

This story, however, takes us back more than 40 years, to whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) turning over to The New York Times in 1971 documents from a Department of Defense-commissioned report chronicling American involvement in—and public deception about—Vietnam going back to the Truman administration. The Nixon administration sought an injunction against the publication of the Pentagon Papers as a threat to national security, yet as the title of The Post suggests, the focus here isn't on the Times, but on the Washington paper dealing with complex issues at the same time. While publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) prepares to take the cash-poor paper public, editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) tries to play catch-up with the Times' reporting. And both of them ultimately face a hard decision about whether to risk publishing their own stories about the Pentagon Papers in the face of legal, political and financial pressure.

Much of the time, The Post feels like two different movies pasted together, which makes it a bit less effective as either one. On the one hand, there's the procedural story of reporters uncovering a far-reaching scandal, which is right in the wheelhouse of co-screenwriter and Spotlight Oscar-winner Josh Singer. The story emphasizes the low-tech leg-work of reporting in the pre-internet era, particularly as reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) tries to verify his suspicion that Ellsberg is the source of the Pentagon Papers leak. The script includes plenty of pointed, on-the-nose dialogue about the importance of journalism—"We have to be the check on their power," etc.—but The Post is considerably more entertaining simply observing as Bradlee and his staff fumble through the disorganized stack of documents, or when Bradlee sends an intern to spy on the Times to figure out what they've got, or even respecting the hard work of everyone from typesetters to workers on the loading docks who get the paper out into the world.

This is also, however, the story of Graham's crucible moment as publisher, built on the back-story of her unexpected ascendance to heading the family business after her husband's suicide. Streep's performance is predictably sensational at capturing a woman full of self-doubt in a society still skeptical of women in positions of authority, and Spielberg employs all of his skills in shots that emphasize her insecurity: peering down at her over Bradlee's shoulder in a way that pins her in a corner, or circling her at a party like she's prey just ready to be eaten. Here, too, there are moments that are a bit overwrought—Graham descends the steps of the Supreme Court through a sea of women gazing at her in unabashed hero-worship—but it's a fascinating piece of character study, even if it's one that's more parallel to the central narrative than integrated into it.

Yet it's also a wonderfully efficient piece of filmmaking, opting not to focus on the arguments before the Supreme Court despite the fact that the case was a First Amendment landmark. Spielberg is slick enough in his directing choices—and savvy enough to put together a killer cast of supporting players like Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Sarah Paulson and Alison Brie—that it rarely feels like you're getting a lecture about the importance of an adversarial free press. And even when it is what you're getting, it's nice to have a lecturer with some style.