‘The Post’ Film Review: Spielberg’s Flashback Flashes The Spotlight On Press, Politics & Power Play

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer

Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Alison Brie, Matthew Rhys

Halfway through The Post, Ben Bradlee’s (Tom Hanks) daughter is seen selling lemonade outside her home. “What’s in the lemonade?” one of Bradlee’s co-workers asks her, “Just lemons,” she says. Any request to spike the beverage with vodka is met with refusal. The scene works as a metaphor for what newspapers in essence should be — documents about unadulterated news that matters, about news that might not make you giddy, but in the long run is necessary for the health of the body politic.

Recreating the events of 1971, Steven Spielberg’s historical drama is about the publication of The Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) gains access to classified documents on the US-Vietnam relations. These papers contain proof that not only was the Vietnam War a futile exercise, but every president from Harry Truman to Lyndon B. Johnson lied to the American public, the press, and the Congress for years about their activities in Vietnam. The war was a lost cause from the beginning, but the most damaging revelation is that it kept on raging for decades to avoid public humiliation. Ellsberg surreptitiously makes photocopies of these documents, and anonymously sends them to several American newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Image: 20th Century Fox

The Times unflinchingly publish the first leaked papers they get their hands on, but this is a time in history when The Post was not yet ‘The’ Post. In dire financial straits, the newspaper is on the verge of going public. Its publisher, Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), is one of the very few women working in journalism, and perhaps the only female owner. As a result, the men who work for her underestimate her skills, and whisper behind her back that The Post, started by Katherine’s father, was later bequeathed to her husband. And when they receive sensitive information of national importance, the question of its publication becomes a matter of heated debate. Meanwhile, Nixon imposes several restrictions on the freedom of press, and The Times gets dragged to court. With the risk of shutting the newspaper down and getting imprisoned on one hand, and maintaining journalistic integrity on the other, Spielberg, with a taut screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, weaves a narrative whose relevance in the age of over-information and “post-truth” cannot be emphasised enough. The film critiques not only the past or even the current Trump administration, but it speaks to every citizen in every democratic country who is not privy to the machinations of the government of his or her choice, and takes the watershed moments of the past for granted.

The Post could have done without sermons on duty and righteousness. Another Tom Hanks starrer from 2016, Sully, was also about the sense of moral duty, and excelled at putting the point across subtly. Here, John Williams’ score interrupts certain heartfelt and tender moments that Graham shares with her daughter to remind the viewers how they are supposed to feel. The ensemble cast, however, delivers a wonderful performance, and the moments of conflict between Streep and Hanks are particularly interesting in the way they depict power relations between men and women, even though Streep plays the boss. It is also refreshing to see Hanks as an agitated editor. He still is a do-gooder, but minus the saccharine, thus making Ben Bradlee a believable, multi-faceted personality. During one of their initial banters, Bradlee tells Graham to “get your finger out of my eye” when she makes a suggestion. The dejection — and later, the acceptance of her inferiority as a woman — is palpable in Streep’s eyes. It’s a moment of triumph for not only the paper, but also for female authority when Graham is able to assert her decisions at last. The press emerges victorious when all the newspapers publish in solidarity, and Nixon’s reputation is besmirched. Echoing the success of 2015’s Spotlight, the film is equally significant in highlighting the dynamic shift in power relations with the might of the pen (particularly in the analog age in which The Post is set). And what’s more? Bradlee’s daughter makes enough money with her unadulterated lemonade to last her a month.


Featured Image Courtesy: thedailybeast.com