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Non-Review Review: The Post

The Post is clean, efficient and timely.

Even to those unfamiliar with the historical events that inspired the film, there will be very little in The Post that is surprising. The Post follows a very clear trajectory for a prestige picture coming into awards season, setting up its character arcs and trajectories in a very straightforward manner and following them all on their clearly defined paths towards the end credits. It is very easy to see where the story will end up, and there are surprisingly few twists and turns in the narrative as it develops.

Food for thought.

However, there is something endearing in this efficiency. The Post famously came together in a hurry while director Steven Spielberg was waiting for postproduction work on Ready Player One, and the film serves as a showcase for the effectiveness of the creative talent involved in the production. The Post is unlikely to become a defining or signature film for anybody involved in its production, but instead exists as a testament to the sheer technique and craft of that production team.

The Post is not a masterpiece or a classic, but it is a sleek and well-made film.

Old news.

The Post is undeniably timely. It would be timely by sheer virtue of its setting, unfolding primarily in and around the newsroom of The Washington Post at a time when the paper was struggling. On the one hand, the company was struggling to break even and in the process of making a public offering. On the other hand, it was in the midst of a wrestling match with the Nixon administration. These two crises collide and overlap in The Post, as publisher Kay Graham finds herself caught between her reporters, her society friends and the shareholders.

Spotlight was a timely Best Picture winner because it showcased the importance of old-fashioned journalism as the industry faced an existential crisis. That crisis has only deepened in the years since, with the Trump victory suggesting that the institution had lost touch with the country on which it was supposed to report and the Trump administration ushering in the era of “fake news.” Indeed, it seems like every other day brings some new scandal or report that either valourises or demonises the press; some error seized upon, some fake sting rustled, some false flag planted.

Oh, Kay.

As such, there is a sense that The Post does a lot of its job just by showing up, by arriving at the right time and focusing on the right topic. Certainly, The Post lacks the fastidious attention to detail that made Spotlight such a compelling and engaging film. The Post is not a story about process or about technique, it is not a story about the mechanics of constructing a newspaper story. Although a large portion of the film focuses on the journalists who worked on the Pentagon Papers, The Post is much more engaged with the publishing and editorial side of things.

There are times when The Post feels like it is moving on autopilot. In particular, several of the storytelling choices feel a little clumsy, as if the narrative is following the path of least resistance. This is most obvious in the film’s closing scene, which plays almost as a sequel hook for an expanded shared universe of films charting the history and the influence of The Washington Post. Indeed, the closing scene is such an obvious lead-in to another iconic story that it feels almost like the prestige picture equivalent of a post-credits scene.

Nothing to report.

However, for all that The Post lacks the focus of Spotlight and for all that the story moves in familiar patterns, there is an efficiency and effectiveness to the way in which the film has been constructed. The Post is very clearly a movie for the twenty-first century, and its emphasis on Kay Graham feels particularly pointed. Graham was the first female news publisher in the United States, and The Post belongs more to her than to the newspaper she ran. The Post is quite conscious of the unique pressures bearing down on Graham, and also understands that those pressures will be familiar to many modern women.

The Post is bolstered by a fantastic central cast. Despite working on an incredibly tight schedule, Spielberg was able to draft in an incredible selection of performers. The outer edges of the cast are rounded out with actors of the caliber of Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons, Sarah Paulson, Michael Stuhlbarg and Carrie Coon. Getting close to the core, Spielberg relies on character actors like Matthew Rhys, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford and Tracy Letts. The Post is not structured as a showcase for any of these performers, instead counting on the cast to work in harmony. It is a pleasure to watch.

The Pentagon’s Paper.

The core of the film is given over to Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. Hanks is suitably charming and energised as executive editor Ben Bradlee, who works primarily as an anchor between the scenes featuring Graham and the scenes more keenly focused on the day-to-day running of the paper itself. Hanks is a smart choice, enjoying an affable chemistry with just about every possible scene partner, and providing a sense of momentum that works well in contrast to the film’s more introspective approach towards Graham.

Streep is similarly impressive as Graham, as a woman facing the enormous pressure of being a leading figure in a male-dominated field and as a society figure navigating the perilous overlap between her friends and her subjects. Indeed, the strongest thematic strands within The Post engage with the delicate class relationships that exist between the journalistic establishment and the politicians upon which they report, the small circles that exist within Washington and how those small circles serve to shape and distort newspaper content.

Born to be Bradlee.

Indeed, the twenty-first century has seen the media attacked as an “elite” that is “out of touch” with the public, an attitude that arguably played into the (grossly inaccurate) perception of Donald Trump as an “outsider” who would “drain the swamp.” The Post confronts these criticisms head-on, acknowledging how closely reporters like Graham and Bradlee moved in the same social spheres as figures like John F. Kennedy and Robert McNamara. “It’s just the way things worked,” Bradlee acknowledges, somewhat ashamed.

The Post argues that the media split with the political establishment happened during the Nixon administration, that the accusations facing the media were already debated and discussed in the early seventies, that the soul-searching occurred a generation ago. The Post works best as that story, as a tale of journalistic introspection and soul-searching. “I never thought of Jack as a source, I thought of him as a friend,” reflects Bradlee of his relationship with Kennedy. “We have to choose. We can’t be both.”

Posted.

Spielberg guides The Post with a steady hand. Spielberg remains one of American’s best working director, a craftsman who is in complete control of his camera even as he makes it look effortless. There are sequences in which the direction of The Post seems almost playful. An early sequence documenting how exactly these government secrets go out plays almost like something from Raiders of the Lost Ark, a pulpy high-stakes adventure and a quick-witted shell-game. One wonderful tracking shot later in the film follows the circuitous route these secrets took to Bradlee’s office.

However, Spielberg’s best work in The Post is not especially showy. Instead, the film remains clear and uncluttered, careful not to get in its own way. This is perhaps best reflected in the way in which Spielberg allows Nixon to haunt the narrative. The thirty-seventh president of the United States appears repeatedly over the course of the film, holed up in the White House and glimpsed from outside as a silhouette in the Oval Office window. His voice is heard on the phone; not that of an impersonator, the real Nixon speaking his actual words. It is a very simple, every effective narrative choice.

Winning Streep?

The Post is a well-made film, one that is certainly timely and relevant. It lacks the sort of spark and frisson that elevates such material, but instead remains a testament to the sheer craft of the cast and crew. The Post is very well put together, and a showcase for the efficiency and effectiveness of all involved.

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