The Post is a classic and timely reminder of the power of the press in Steven Spielberg’s latest film.
“If ever a time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in Government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.”
– Samuel Adams
I’m not usually given to opening a film review with a quote from one of this country’s founding fathers, but there is something to be said about the power the press has to shape this country’s ideological thinking. Or, at least that power existed in the early 1970’s. And that’s the picture that master director Steven Spielberg paints for us in his latest thriller, The Post.
As the film opens, the script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer offers background on Vietnam, our war there and its political tensions across multiple presidencies. This leads into the Nixon administration, where we are given a glimpse of his distaste for the press and his efforts to hush them. As the story further unfolds, we learn of the struggles of a modern newspaper as Katherine Graham (Streep) forges an unlikely alliance with her new editor, the brash, young Ben Bradlee (Hanks).
With a meticulous script by Ms. Hannah and Mr. Singer, this is classic Spielberg at its finest. The entire story waltzes through its own minimalism as if we know exactly what the outcome will be. However, it never confuses the dangers of the time with the risks in what Graham and Bradlee were trying to accomplish during this struggle. More importantly, it uses the small tears that were slowly beginning to widen in the Constitutional Crisis during the struggle to keep the tension built.
It is important to note the role that The New York Times played in all of this. They were the first to break the Pentagon Papers story, and they were the reason for the case being taken all the way up to the Supreme Court. The film does fold these events into the story, as they are integral to key events, but they are not the main focus of the story. Nor should they really be. Whether the narrative choices are kind to history will be up for audiences to decide. For this critic, their role was given an appropriate amount of light which heightened the thematic tension.
It is easy to compare The Post to Spotlight from a few years back, but I would be reticent to make this same comparison: The Post is very much about the protecting a source from being corrupted, having integrity in reporting the news and having the power to hold our government accountable to its very highest standards; Spotlight was about slowly investigating and building the case. And, they are two truly separate functions in journalism. Mr. Spielberg never lets us forget this difference, and that’s the key to his success here. The first rate cast drive home the ideology and integrity behind their decisions. Nothing is taken lightly, but nothing lingers either.
In the 1970’s, news was delivered via a newspaper like The Washington Post or the nightly news at 5 PM and 10 PM, where hard research and attention to detail drove whether a story made it to column 1 on page 1 or column 1 on page 14 in the sports section. Mr. Spielberg makes it a point to mention that not every effort to obtain information was on the level, but it was a last effort to obtain information. In classic and clever fashion, Mr. Spielberg also reminds us that the news cycle never stops, even if it wasn’t reported, back then, 24 hours a day.
As this classic and timeless film expands this weekend, and opens nationwide on January 12th, one might be inclined to look at this film with an eye towards our modern state of journalism, government and the role each plays in a balanced and just society. Hopefully the distinction is not lost.
Expanding this weekend, The Post is rated PG-13 by the MPAA.