Timely in many ways, almost quaint in others, Steven Spielberg’s media drama The Post flirts with weighty issues, only some of which prove relevant in this attempted throwback to, and chronological precursor of, classic political reportage thriller All the President’s Men. As publisher and editor of the Washington Post, Streep and Hanks grapple here with the issue of whether to publish classified material about the Vietnam War leaked by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys, TV’s The Americans).
That was more of a dilemma in 1971 than it would be today, due to the cosiness between the military-industrial complex, political class, and high society media owners. Not to mention the fact that the Pentagon Papers, as they came to be known, showed the US Government was lying – lying! – to its citizens.
Heroic and historic as the events depicted here may be, it’s hard to escape the sense of cynicism today’s audiences will have: “of course governments lie!”. And Ellsberg’s actions have been arguably eclipsed by that of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning in the modern era.
Still, there are some thrills in seeing media organisations stand up to the might of the state, especially at a time when the current POTUS tries to quell dissent in direct opposition to the legal rulings handed down in this very film.
As the film’s tone veers back and forth between borderline TV movie and gripping drama, it’s propelled by powerful turns from leads Streep and Hanks. At times they serve up too much capital-A actoring when opposite one another, seemingly used to acting their co-stars off the screen, and finding themselves unloading their full ammo simultaneously here, like two warships emptying their armories on one another at close range.
They fall into their roles as the film progresses, and particularly as it accelerates in its third act – Hanks displaying a dogged determination, Streep shining in a feminist transformation as her formerly meek character stops deferring to the wills of male “advisers” and begins to truly assert herself.
The pair are surrounded with a robust supporting cast, who provide Spielberg strong assistance in bringing both newsroom and boardroom dealings to 70s life – particularly Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, and Bruce Greenwood as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
The Post doesn’t quite gel though – perhaps it’s a bit of over-earnestness, or a feeling of outdatedness as it looks back longingly on the era of physical newspapers. Still, it’s a watchable, if not enthralling, account of important events, and some notions that are perhaps more important today than they even were forty-something years ago.