REVIEW: The Post (Steven Spielberg, 2018)

The Post is a film which intrigued me for a few reasons before I went to see it. For one, I was completely ignorant of the story and this period of history in general, something I really should rectify. Another reason was how astonishingly relevant the themes of this film are to the current White House administration and the release of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury earlier this month. And lastly, this is the first film that Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep have acted in together – and in a Steven Spielberg film no less! Given this variety of vested interests, there didn’t seem to be any way that the film could leave me disappointed…

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On the first count, The Post was right on the money. The plot centres on the leak of the fabled Pentagon Papers which revealed decades of policy by the White House regarding US relations with Vietnam. Among other revelations, the papers detail the USA’s corrupt dealings in Vietnam long before the war and then the reluctance of subsequent presidents to end the war in case the decision stained their term in office – allowing many more American soldiers to die. The Post works extremely well in setting the scene for these revelations and viewers with a layman’s knowledge of modern American history (like me) are helped to understand the significance of the papers. This was a truly seismic leak which was far more devastating than the sordid details of celebrity tax havens.

The Pentagon Papers are leaked by a military analyst in order to expose this disgusting hypocrisy – the opening sequence shows Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) join a company of soldiers into the Vietnamese jungle, where they are ambushed and suffer fatalities. Ellsberg is horrified by his superiors’ lies to the media that the war is going well, and leaks his report, the Pentagon Papers, to The New York Times. Here is where the plot begins to dovetail with real life – after the first report on the papers by the Times, Richard Nixon demands that no further stories be reported. This attack on the First Amendment has been mirrored this January by Donald Trump’s attempt to block the publication of Fire and Fury, an insider account of the first year of his presidency. The Post is very aware of this and takes every opportunity to provide a stirring speech about the values of the constitution and the duty of the press to hold the powerful to account. This was all very enjoyable to a liberal snowflake like myself, and I hope to read Trump tweet that The Post is overrated very soon.

Once The New York Times bows to the pressure from the White House, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the scrappy managing editor of The Washington Post, decides that now is the time for the paper to make its name. Meryl Streep plays the paper’s owner, Katharine Graham, who took up the position after her husband’s suicide. While Tom Hanks is good as the belligerent Bradlee who insists that they publish the leaks, The Post belongs to Streep whose character at first struggles to navigate the all-male boardrooms in which her role demands that she be an assertive figure. Katharine overcomes this uneven playing field and takes control of the film’s decisive moment, and it is in this narrative of female empowerment that The Post feels most convincing.

Despite the performances of Streep and Hanks, The Post does not rank among Spielberg’s better films. It runs in the same vein as the recent Bridge of Spies (2015) yet does not feel nearly as polished nor as engaging. The dialogue doesn’t have the natural zip necessary for such a densely detailed film and the rushed nature of production is evident in the complete lack of humour. And, in terms of newspaper films, The Post has nothing on Spotlight (2015).

The Post is definitely worth a watch if you have no memory or knowledge of the subject matter but I believe that it will look a distinctly average film once the current climate in American politics changes. A shame considering the heavy weight Hollywood talent on display. Sad!

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