Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” is engaging and timely

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There’s this strange fixation that filmmakers seem to have with newsrooms. If I were to guess why, I’d say it’s because journalism relates to filmmaking in many ways. It’s a fast-paced environment that relies on teamwork and cooperation. It distills the truth into a compelling and digestible story. And, ultimately, both aim to communicate ideas on a mass scale.

Steven Spielberg captures the hum of energy found in the newsroom with a great deal of finesse. His camera dances around desks, typewriters, harried secretaries, and frenzied interns with the free-flowing precision that he’s been perfecting throughout his career. His love for this environment is evident. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always translate into great storytelling.

The main problem resides within the script. Charting the series of events leading up to The Washington Post’s landmark Nixon expose, screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer try to wring every ounce of drama they can from pure anticipation. There is a lot of waiting in this film. At first, the tension is palpable, containing the slow-burn sense of suspense you often see in thrillers made in the ’70s. However, this eventually fizzles out and quickly becomes monotonous. This issue really manifests in the first half of the film. It honestly feels like a significant portion of it could have been cut out to create a leaner, more efficient narrative.

All that said, when this film moves, it really moves. Spielberg, a virtuosic director even on his worst days, is able to make the more eventful segments of the films scream into action with some of his most interesting and energetic camerawork to date. Take, for example, a segment where Ben Bagdikian (an entertaining Bob Odenkirk) goes through the painstaking process of finding his source. It’s told in a way that emphasizes mystery, creating tension from the unknown. The way Spielberg shoots these sequences brims with paranoia, turning what could easily be seen as routine journalism into full-fledged genre territory without losing an ounce of authenticity.

Once Ben gets the documents detailing the decades-long Vietnam cover-up, the film really kicks into high gear. The script establishes a ticking clock that constantly feels too short, then dazzles with the work ethic these journalists used to beat it. Spielberg makes the process of research somehow one of the most visually effective segments of the film, capturing the flying stacks of paper with a sense of controlled chaos that puts us into the seasoned, if frantic, minds of the reporters. It’s important too, that Spielberg effectively characterizes each of these reports with a great sense of specificity. Each of these journalists interacts with each other and the world in very personal ways, and Spielberg uses these quirks and character elements to ground this drama with his classic humanistic touches.

Of course, the performances do a lot to ground these characters in reality. Tom Hanks gives a characteristically excellent performance as Ben Bradlee. Bradlee, in the hands of a lesser actor, could have easily been insufferable. He’s strict, harsh, uncaring, and sometimes even dismissive towards his colleagues. An inexperienced actor would have dived into this character’s difficultness with glee, but Hanks imbues him with a wry sense of humor and a warmth that occasionally surfaces. It’s a careful, intelligent performance, and it’s one of the reasons why Hanks is one of the best actors working today.

Meryl Streep is the real standout here, however, as Kay Graham, a woman who suddenly finds herself owning her late husband’s failing publication. The temptation would be to play Graham with an insurmountable level of resolve. But, like Hanks, Streep remembers to treat Graham as a person first and an icon second. She makes us realize the political and emotional minefield she needs to constantly navigate in order to stay alive. Being given control over an entire company after never working a day in your life is difficult enough. Dealing with the loss of your partner is difficult enough. Trying to survive as a woman in a male-dominated workforce is difficult enough. Graham has to deal with all three and, sometimes, the pressure can be too much to take.

“The Post” was rushed into production for a reason. Now, in this era where politicians are obsessed with policing the truth, we realize that good, intelligent journalism is more important than ever. Nixon was the kind of president who was more concerned with his image than with the people he was supposed to govern. The journalists of The Washington Post exposed him for the kind of man he really was. Now, with a president who’s obsessed with nothing but his image, it’s important to remember just how devastating the truth can be.

 

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