Few middle fingers have been aimed at the Trump Administration with less subtlety than Steven Spielberg’s Pentagon Papers exposé The Post, which admonishes the current President for his attack on free press by admonishing the Nixon Administration for doing the same thing. It’s a metaphor in which the metaphor appears almost identical to what it’s metaphorizing. The big difference is that, in the movie’s 70s-set timeline, the Washington Post isn’t owned by Jeff Bezos yet.
Instead, the whole operation is being held together by a thread that threatens to slip out of accidental heir Katherine Graham’s (Meryl Streep) fingers if she’s not careful. Katherine is surrounded by men who are more than eager to tell her what to do with the family business that her late father handed down to his son-in-law, who then committed suicide, leaving Katherine in charge. This allows Spielberg to draw another clear parallel between ’71 and ’17, adding to the discussion of how women are mistreated and underestimated in the workplace.
It’s all incredibly important and epically topical and having a filmmaker as confident and experienced as Spielberg behind the camera guarantees that the message comes through loud and clear. But in this instance, that Spielbergian sheen also appears to hold the movie back from really making its statements stick. It’s simply too slick a presentation, too transparent a comparison, too sentimentalized a triumph to honestly capture the sense of dramatic urgency the story insists it possesses.
Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, the signature Spielbergian slickness that holds the movie back from being great is also what props the picture up and helps make it as good as it otherwise is. Spielberg creates such a comfortable onscreen environment that it’s hard to not want to be a part of what’s happening in the story and he’s such an old pro with his actors that the whole ensemble clicks together effortlessly.
Spielberg also brings with him his usual collaborators, who are all doing solid work here, from Michael Kahn’s crisp cutting to John Williams’ suspenseful scoring. But of all the familiar names behind the camera, it’s Janusz Kaminski that has made the most impressive and exciting contribution to the movie.
Kaminski has been shooting Spielberg’s movies for the past 25 years, becoming one of the most significant architects of the famed filmmaker’s visual identity over the last quarter century, and The Post might be Kaminski’s finest photography since A.I. The vast majority of shots in the movie depict a group of similarly dressed men standing around a non-descript newsroom and yet Kaminski makes every person pop out of the background, except for the occasional ones that are the background.
He also uses his photography to bridge the gap between past and present, retaining enough film grain in the shots to recall the 70s, while also applying a very modern gloss that allows for extreme clarity in the imagery. It’s a beautiful movie to simply observe and Spielberg and Kaminski have worked together long enough now that they make this all look far easier than anyone can imagine it actually is.
The cast certainly does their part as well. Streep and Tom Hanks are far beyond any ability or desire to disappear into their characters, but they’re both so wonderfully watchable that they fit the cozily familiar vibe that Spielberg is aiming for. Streep is always excellent at modulating her presence to best capture the plight of her character in the moment, so at times Katherine feels small and lacking in confidence as she internalizes the perception so many of the men around her hold, until she suddenly rises up and externalizes her powerful voice, unleashing a distinct Streep-ishness.
Hanks brings his trademark warmth to iconic editor Ben Bradlee, while adding a bit of saltiness and weariness to keep things interesting. The supporting cast, including Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, is very solid, acting veterans engaging with energy and experience, which is helpful since most of them are playing variations on the generic role of Newspaper Man. An exception is Carrie Coon, who plays the novel part of Newspaper Woman. Throw in Tracy Letts and Michael Stuhlbarg as Men Wearing Suits and you have an ensemble that is more than capable of fleshing out thin roles.
As is often the case with Spielberg’s movies, the talent assembled here is top-notch. But The Post falls short of reaching the heights of this decade’s fellow Spielberg-helmed American history dramas Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, both of which had crackling scripts. The Post’s screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer is piecemeal by comparison and its attempt to capture the hustle and bustle of journalistic discourse is a bit lead-footed.
The real issue, though, is that it all feels a bit soft and a tad safe, which grates against the movie’s depiction of courageous people risking their livelihoods to break a story simply for the good of the public. The movie exhibits great contempt for corrupt political powers and efforts made to lie to honest Americans, but ultimately only parrots platitudes on its way to making a point. As far as middle fingers go, this one is pretty limp.