My Favorite Movies – The Post (2017)

7 Jun

By Tanner Smith

Strangely, I didn’t get so into Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” when I first saw it in a theater. I admired it for telling a serious story about a free press at the right time, but I didn’t get much from it apart from that. I think I made the mistake of comparing it to Spotlight–probably a fair comparison, since it’s the Oscar-winning film that set a new standard for “journalism movies” and both films share the same co-writer (Josh Singer). But it’s not really fair to THIS movie.

I’m glad I watched it again on DVD–I noticed a lot more that I didn’t before and grew a new particular fondness for it. In fact…I can admit that I think I spoke too soon when I said Bridge of Spies was my favorite Spielberg film of the 2010s.

There are some doses of romanticized sentimentality and melodrama (plus everyone likes to make fun of the somewhat-forced moment in which Katherine Graham is applauded by a mostly-female crowd as a new heroic figure), but in a lesser movie, those would bother me. The historical accuracy and attention to detail of the early 1970s are spot-on (and the DVD extras help my case there), and the whole film feels like a 1970s dramatic thriller, like “The China Syndrome” or (the most obvious comparison) “All the President’s Men” (to which this film is seen as a prequel). This is director Steven Spielberg and his usual crew (which includes cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn) having a field day with this material. But they’re also telling a serious timely story at the same time, and Spielberg knew the importance of that. In fact, he halted pre-production on one project when he read screenwriter Liz Hannah’s Blacklist draft of “The Post” and immediately went to work on it. Within a year, he had a completed film released and ready for the Academy Awards (for which it was nominated for Best Picture).

That’s not to say Spielberg half-asses “The Post” at all. As I said, he gets a lot of the material spot-on–it’s just that as an added bonus, we get that special Spielbergian magic and edge to it. He cares very deeply about saying the right thing with the right film to be released at the right time. (That was the case with Munich, his take on the war on terror, and it’s the case here, in a film that has allusions to the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.)

“The Post” is set in the early 1970s, but it spoke to audiences in 2017-2018 because it was based on the true story of the Washington Post exposing Pentagon secrets and starting a movement for what we now call “free press,” at a time (during the Nixon administration) when a paranoid President feared such a concept. (Oh how far we hadn’t come…) And that’s why I now admire this film for its journalistic courage and recognition of the power of the First Amendment. (…I’m obligated to say, “Kinda like ‘Spotlight.'”)

At the time, the Washington Post wasn’t taken too seriously–it was seen more as a nice little local newspaper compared to the high standards of the New York Times. But editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks), who treats journalism like a highly competitive game, won’t stand for that. Things change, however, when one of his reporters, Ben Bagdikian (wonderfully played by Bob Odenkirk), comes across the top-secret documents that prove how the Vietnam War was set up. Bagdikian lets Bradlee in on the secret and he of course decides to go for it and print everything for the Post. (This was my biggest problem upon initial viewing of this film, that Bradlee seemed more concerned about beating the Times to this story than getting the story out there–but the more I watch the film, the more I realize, “This is Ben Bradlee–of course he has a clearer agenda than that.”) The Times has already exposed many of the Pentagon Papers–but when Nixon orders the paper to stop, Bradlee sees this as a chance for the Post to take a stand and remind everyone what freedom of speech means.

Meryl Streep stars as Katharine (“Kay”) Graham, heiress and publisher for the Post. We see the real-life Katharine Graham as a journalistic icon now, but back when this movie is set, she had to prove herself. One of the more intriguing aspects of the film is how Graham has to handle herself with an all-male board of directors who didn’t take her seriously and didn’t hide the fact that they didn’t want her in the way, making her unsure of herself. It’s even more interesting that she’s a long-time friend of Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the Secretary of Defense who played a major role in America’s involvement with Vietnam–if she gives Bradlee the go-ahead to expose the papers, she’d be turning her back on a friend. (She was also friendly with other Washington insiders–we see her mingling with them at many cocktail parties.) Therein lies the conflict of what’s more important to her (plus the high probability that both she and Bradlee could go to jail for going to print with this), which leads to a conference phone call that is the most suspenseful moment in the film. What results will change Graham for the better.

There’s a lot going on in “The Post” and a lot at stake for the characters and for the country in general. Bradlee knows that there has to be a free press, other people are with him, many people don’t want to risk it due to their own sense of integrities, others want to cover their own asses. It takes an intelligent and sharply written screenplay from Hannah and Singer to keep us on-edge because Spielberg keeps invested with his direction–and it helps further inspire those who dare to expose truth, secrets, or both.

Another thing to admire about “The Post”–the amazing ensemble cast. Even though Streep and Hanks are front-and-center of this film, they are aided by an excellent supporting cast. Aside from Bob Odenkirk (who, in fact, I wanted to see more of upon initial viewing–guess that’s what subsequent viewings are for), there’s also Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys, Jesse Plemons, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, David Cross (hey it’s a “Mr. Show” reunion!), Michael Stuhlbarg–just to name a few! They’re all brilliant here and hold their own with Hanks and/or Streep.

My favorite was Odenkirk’s Bagdikian because he played the type of reporter who went on this particular scoop to obtain these documents because he was truly the heart and soul of Bradlee’s newsroom and mainly cared about setting forth the truth.

And that’s what “The Post” is about: exposing the truth…OK, it may take some liberties here and there (as all films do), but its central message is clear. I may have gotten it back then, but I underrated the way it was delivered. And it’s a mistake I won’t make again.

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