‘The Post’ is a virtuous but visceral celebration of American honesty

Steven Spielberg, you could argue, has made the best 70s film since Apocalypse Now. His Pentagon Papers drama, greenlit and executed within 9 months with the authorial energy of a young Ridley Scott (9 years younger, to be exact), The Papers exudes the spirit of movies like Network and — more overtly — All The President’s Men. Traffic sounds dominate exterior scenes. Long lenses slowly find their focus. And the beating heart of modern liberalism, belief in the power of the people and the power of the press, is celebrated with a contemptuous view of the current White House running through every tightly-staged scene.

We begin in Vietnam. Under the supervision of Robert McNamara, America is losing the war. Cut to 1971, and the nation’s rival broadsheets — the New York Times and Washington Post — are in a race to report on leaked government documents revealing the extent of presidential conspiracy in covering up the truth behind the pointless fighting. In charge of the latter publication are publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), who spend the film seeking, and then debating whether to print, the papers. There’s surprising excitement in this, the stakes seeming even higher given the present mood in the journalism world, and Spielberg is incredibly inventive in ramping up the tension: printing presses creak into action, type ready to go, as Bob Odenkirk sprints across the newsroom to answer a phone.

The Post is exactly the kind of idealistic journalism drama that gets my pulse racing. Yet there’s much more to this film: Graham’s clashes with the male-dominated business cowards trying to prevent the publication of the papers, led by Bradley Whitford in gleefully mansplaining form, are amusing but horrifying: she walks past a group of wives on the stairs and steps into a boardroom of 20 males. She is an outsider in their world, and there’s an unexpected vulnerability to Streep’s performance; she doesn’t overdo the power of the character; Katherine is, realistically, intimidated at first by this culture, and it takes time for her to find her voice. In the potential to include a pro-women strand in addition to its theme of “Journalists Are Important”, The Post really is the perfect political movie of the now.

There are so many great actors in this cast, it’s difficult to coherently address each of them. Hanks is Hanks; Bridge of Spies-level good; a source of optimism as always. Sarah Paulson is introduced offering sandwiches to the men, but gets a decent speech on gender imbalance later on. Bob Odenkirk is the soul of the movie, a cleaner, less sketchy Saul Goodman, doing the dirty work for the greater good. Carrie Coon and Tracy Letts, real-life spouses, are given solid moments as fairly stereotypical background characters. Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons and David Cross are nice to see, but have little to do. Michael Stuhlbarg is most criminally underused of all, with few scenes, badly-dyed hair and — for some reason — isn’t credited. Zach Woods doesn’t really register. Still, it aides the film in getting straight to the point when everyone on screen is a well-liked and established TV player, and The Post shares the goods more than it needed to, considering it is — after all — a Streep/Hanks joint.

If we’re measuring great political statements, an expensive Hollywood movie about smart people being noble in 1971 might not seem like the purest expression of anti-Trump sentiment, and Spielberg isn’t exactly known for modesty in his historical reenactments. But The Post is a more measured affair than his Lincoln and his War Horse; it feels like it’s actually about something and has been constructed with a means to an end. No right-wing Republican voters are going to watch this film (I’m sure it’s way at the bottom of Clint Eastwood’s screener pile), so it’s hardly going to save the country. But it should serve as a reminder for the more apathetic and unmotivated among us that — in the words of Bradlee — “the right to publish can only be asserted by publishing”, and that in times like these there’s no bad time to make a statement.