The eponymous Post of Steven Spielberg’s latest feature is The Washington Post newspaper which in 1971 transformed itself from a local publication to a national paper when, under the leadership of publisher Katherine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), defied an injunction by the Richard Nixon administration to publish the remainder of the Pentagon Papers, an academic study outlining the real downward progression of American involvement in Vietnam over successive decades and presidencies, effectively spelling out a duplicitous cover-up. Graham and Bradlee race to publish against the risk of federal censure, the Nixon White House’s war on the free press, and the insecurity surrounding the public optioning of the paper.
While a substantial portion of the film’s pre-release publicity focused on the calibre of the creative talent involved – marking the first ever on-screen pairing of Streep and Hanks, totems of modern Hollywood – there was equally plenty of commentary afforded to the rapid production time of the film. While in post-production on Ready Player One (2018) and jumping ahead of a planned biopic on the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara which would have re-teamed Spielberg with Mark Rylance for the fourth time, the Bearded One rushed The Post into production in May 2017 before its initial bow in December 2017, a turnaround of just under seven months. The intention was nakedly clear; the film was an allegory for the current troubled state of American politics and a presidency even more ruthlessly opposed to the freedom of the press than Nixon ever was. Spielberg has drawn a parallel between the besieged Washington Post of the 1970s and their contemporary peers within the fourth estate (not to mention the new citizen journalists of the fifth estate) who are just as valiantly committed to the defence of the US Constitution’s First Amendment as they have always been.
What is surprising then about The Post is how far it transcends being the sort of dramatically inert civics lesson in period trappings that the production background might suggest. Spielberg’s film leans into the extensive shadow of influence of that other Nixon-era journalism drama, Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men which depicted Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) working in the aftermath of the Watergate affair to expose the Nixon administration’s illegal practice and cover-up of “ratfucking” – appropriating re-election campaign funds to target their Democratic political opponents. The events of The Post immediately precede All the President’s Men, and the former concludes with a coda that directly re-enacts the opening of the latter, establishing The Post as the Rogue One of the Watergate Cinematic Universe.
However, The Post does not just overlap with All the President’s Men in its timescale; both films make stringent efforts to portray the actual “work” of journalism – corroborating facts, ensuring that the sources are properly attributed on record in yellow legal pads. The primary weapon of reporters as righteous agents of objective truth fighting an anti-truth presidency are verifiable, unvarnished facts and the makers of The Post are keen to showcase a similarly righteous spirit of old-school journalism. In this vein, the film correlates most obviously with Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, USA, 2015) with whom The Post shares a co-writer, Josh Singer, who previously wrote for The West Wing (1999 – 2006). While it would therefore be easy to dismiss The Post as an analogue reprisal of Spotlight and its misty-eyed belief in journalistic values – Janusz Kaminski’s camera even pornographically lingers on close-ups of archaic lead-type printing presses – the message of The Post, All the President’s Men, and Spotlight is one that bears endless repeating in the face of a culture war wherein the roles of gatekeepers of the public sphere are continually being challenged and obscured.
Additionally, The Post breaks away from its forebears in its primary focus on female lead Katherine “Kay” Graham, whose storyline forms the most complete arc of character development within the film (although it must be said that Tom Hanks’ gruffly modulated voice and rheumatic body language in his portrayal of the Post’s editor Ben Bradlee makes for an interesting deviation in the pantheon of Hanks performances). In reality, Kay Graham inherited the Washington Post by accident: the paper was bequeathed by her father to her husband, yet, in the wake of her husband’s suicide, Kay is reluctantly transformed from socialite into businesswoman. The Post is thus the story of Kay Graham’s professional evolution, working to reclaim her as a feminist standard bearer in sequences where she enters and leaves the Supreme Court while flocked by young female students and wide-eyed protestors, perhaps mimetically echoing the prominence of Meryl Streep’s voice in the industry dialogue surrounding the #MeToo movement spearheaded by younger generation actresses like Reese Witherspoon and Natalie Portman. Streep’s performance style undoubtedly enhances this sense of appreciation; while her professional stature and star quality might occasionally threaten to affect our suspension of disbelief when viewing each new film performance, Streep the alchemist reminds us in The Post of her inimitable, forever evolving skillset. One of the most memorable passages in the film is Graham’s teary confession to her daughter, played by Alison Brie, of the weight of responsibility in her new position and the burden of honouring her family business at a time when she risks the existence of the paper in the week that the organisation is listed on the stock exchange. Graham takes the leap of faith and gives Bradlee permission to run the Pentagon Paper disclosures, her voice cracking and trembling in a tone that would otherwise convey terrifying vulnerability but here communicates a tentative discovery of a newfound steely resolve. It is a small quiet moment amongst the grandstanding passion and vim of the rest of the film, but it perhaps most succinctly captures the understated, Capra-esque dignity of The Post’s overall message.
While the film fails to break new ground in its passionate depiction of objective journalistic methodology, Spielberg, Streep and Hanks have crafted a timely and depressingly urgent rallying cry for the value and necessity of female voices in male-dominated industries, as well as continued vigilance towards the freedom of the fourth estate.