After a three-year break following the 2012 release of Lincoln, Steven Spielberg has cranked out three mature and understated genre films in three years, culminating with his latest release, The Post. The BFG was an undervalued children’s fantasy, but spy flick Bridge of Spies and newspaper movie The Post use their respective genres to make august, auburn-tinged commentaries on American institutions, past and present. Now 71 years old, Spielberg has slipped into his golden years like an Old Hollywood studio veteran (his upcoming Ready Player One looks anything but mature. Time will tell).
In making a film about American institutions, Spielberg also casts a couple of them in the lead roles of The Post. Frequent Spielberg collaborator Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, no-nonsense editor of the Washington Post, while Meryl Streep plays WaPo publisher and D.C. socialite Katherine Graham. Set in the pre-Watergate early 1970s, The Post centers on the leak and publication of the Pentagon Papers, the classified documents that proved the government lied about the then-raging Vietnam War.
When former RAND Corporation employee Daniel Ellsberg leaked the photocopied material in 1971, he worked with a reporter from the New York Times, but the Nixon administration obtained a federal court injunction to stop further publication. Bradlee and the Washington Post picked up the ball and published its own series of Pentagon Papers-related articles, although not without significant internal strife; Graham’s moneyed dinner party pals were among those implicated.
In making a film about the Nixon administration’s toxic relationship with the press, Spielberg is obviously making a film about the hostility our current paranoid, racist commander-in-chief holds for journalists. For better and sometimes worse, The Post is a Film About How We Live Today, but one thing it nails about government watchdog journalism at the highest level is that for all the heroic sacrifices of the worker bees, it only takes one wealthy queen bee to stop or start the presses.
That’s an especially pertinent message, not only in relation to the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post, but to the alternative weeklies currently getting dismantled across the country. While The Post works too hard to make Graham seem stumbling and shallow, Streep delivers one of her most restrained performances.
The Post was written by Josh Singer, the Oscar-winning co-screenwriter of Tom McCarthy’s forgettable awards magnet Spotlight. Both The Post and Spotlight are process movies about journalists and their groundbreaking scoops, and they trace similar issues regarding the press’ freedoms and responsibilities. It’s as if Spielberg watched Spotlight and thought it might make a good movie someday.
Along with Spielberg come some indispensable collaborators, most notably composer John Williams and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. As ever, some of Spielberg’s decisions are distracting (casting Bob Odenkirk and David Cross as WaPo colleagues) or overbearing (Carrie Coon wringing tears from a court brief), but most of The Post runs like classically constructed clockwork.