Censorship of the free press isn’t an invention of the Trump administration. In spite of the plumes of cigarette smoke, angry chattering of typewriter keys and now antiquated passage of information, which ground The Post in its milieu of early 1970s Washington DC, there are significant parallels to our own lamentable age of ‘fake news’.
Targeting the years prior to the Watergate scandal, Steven Spielberg’s latest film, a workmanlike endeavour – which sees the director once again collaborating with an ever-affable, reliable Tom Hanks – explores how much the disciplined, determined men and women of the press will put on the line in order to expose the lies and sordid tactics of the establishment, and the lengths to which the latter will go to subdue these truths ever seeing the light of day.
Several decades worth of confidential government study – smuggled out of a private security firm’s office by Matthew Rhys’ US military analyst Daniel Ellsberg – pertaining to the USA’s persistence in Vietnam even in the knowledge of being unable to win the war – are the incendiary stakes at hand here. Following the papers, the briefcase, the sealed packages carried hand to hand between offices and stunted whispers via payphones, Spielberg’s attention to detail, precision and nostalgic adoration of the simplicity and authenticity of analogue times is tremendous.
This is real journalism at work. And before Woodward and Bernstein take on the mantle of taking down Nixon, The Washington Post editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and his team – of whom Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian is the real standout – are in search of a story worthy of their talents and to upset the incumbent president’s apple cart. Always seeming to play second fiddle to The New York Times, when their competitors are subject to an injunction for publishing a portion of the documents, the question raised is whether the titular Post will answer the call to arms.
But everyone has a boss; and the dignified, resolute ace in the hole to whom all men associated with the paper must answer is Kay Graham. As the matriarchal head of this family business, pushed into the deep-end by the unexplained suicide of her husband, Meryl Streep’s performance is one of petrified, courageous grace. The paper is in her blood, her DNA, it is a part of her life, and as important as the family on whom she dotes so completely. Unwittingly finding herself at the sharp end of this historical political dilemma, the ultimate decision is hers but she leans on those around her for advice.
Proceedings are dialogue-heavy, as the legal machinations and ramifications turn towards their tipping point. This focus is both the film’s strongest and weakest points. The process, the noses to the grindstone, the diligence and faultless morality of The Washington Post’s journalists is admirable and insightful but not seeing much of the bigger picture limits just how momentous are their actions. A cloying concluding affirmation will curl some toes, but The Post is nonetheless a heart-on-its-sleeve feature which, though preaching to the converted who will see it, is a rousing championing of the power and importance of the media in its purest form.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens