A quote of unknown origin, though most commonly attributed to Orwell, states that “in a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Steven Spielberg’s latest Oscar magnet The Post demonstrates exactly that. Set during the era of the most scandalous administration in American history, the film exposes one of the most critical endangerments the world of journalism has ever faced, and celebrates the key figures involved with a respectable degree of restraint. In an age when free speech is under direct fire, The Post is mandatory viewing, and proves the most relevant film of 2017.
With powerhouse headliners including Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, many viewers will need no other information to be sold on the film. But The Post has so much going for it beyond casting: in addition to being helmed by one of cinema’s most accomplished directors, the feature is penned in part by Josh Singer, one of the scribes behind Spotlight, 2015’s Best Picture-winner and arguably the greatest journalism drama of all time. While not quite as scathingly enlightening as that film, The Post represents further exhibition of bold and desperately vital investigative work.
Having started his career by crafting the modern concept of the summer blockbuster with mammoth classics such as Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg first dipped into socially conscious waters with 1985’s acclaimed The Color Purple, and has spent the latter portion of his career alternating between the two styles of content. The director’s latest feature from 2016 The BFG represented his continuing strength with whimsical fare, but his expertise as a veteran was better evident in near-masterpieces of late including Lincoln and Bridge of Spies.
In The Post, Spielberg oscillates back to pertinent topical matter once again, re-teaming with Hanks after stellar collaborations such as Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me if You Can, but this marks the first time the director has ever worked with acting virtuoso Streep, save for voice work in A.I. Notably, the picture marks the first occasion Hanks has ever coordinated with her as well, furnishing easily some of the most desirable production credits of 2017. The thespians face stiff competition for Oscars this season, but Streep and Hanks easily meet expectations.
Spielberg was in the midst of pre-production on The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara last February when he was courted to direct The Post. Upon reading Liz Hannah’s screenplay, the director knew “this wasn’t something that could wait three years or two years — this was a story I felt we needed to tell today.” Striking while the iron of the Trump presidency is hot, the director hurried into production while simultaneously finishing post work on the gargantuan spectacle Ready Player One, a move similar to his renowned act juggling Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in 1993.
Josh Singer was then hired to rewrite the script, and The Post reached completion several months later. The final product inevitably pales in comparison to Spielberg’s daunting previous works including Schindler’s List, but if Ready Player One can meet expectations, Spielberg’s stunt in balancing the two projects deserves respect similar to his feat in ’93. The Post suffers in similarity to All the President’s Men, as well as in following up 2015’s magnificent Spotlight, but crucial subject matter and divine execution render the film a requisite study in First Amendment rights.
The Post opens in 1965 with military analyst Daniel Ellsburg (Matthew Rhys) putting his freedom on the line copying classified documents detailing the United States’ betrayal of the American public through decades of lies regarding the feasibility of the Vietnam War. As the bombshell series rolls out in the New York Times, Washington Post editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Hanks) watches in agony, desperate to join the fight. Bradlee’s crack investigative team finally gains access to “the papers,” meanwhile, the Nixon administration takes the Times to court by filing an injunction.
As owner and publisher of the The Washinton Post, Katharine Graham (Streep) is forced into an unthinkable position: risk jail time, a public offer, and the fate of the paper at large by holding the government accountable for its actions, or forever forfeit journalistic integrity and gumption for her publication, the public’s right to knowledge, and the future of the fourth estate at large by keeping quiet. If you know your history, the outcome is obvious, but that doesn’t deprive this cinematic reenactment of its lush rewards, and the parallels to today’s climate are disturbing.
Historians critical of the need for creative freedom are crying foul with the film’s honing in on the Post as the case’s lone heroes, but objective retrospect of the events as presented here shouldn’t diminish the value of Ellsburg and the Times’ contributions to the papers’ disclosure. As with any historical drama, embellishment exists, but the film predominates as an accurate depiction. With scenes of reporters sneaking around like spies, some material rings as overly cinematic, but in the end Spielberg delivers the dramatic sophistication the premise demands.
In an age when our president consistently undermines our First Amendment rights – even holding “fake news” awards – no film in 2017 is as timely or as necessary as The Post. In their first joint project, Hanks and Streep take direction from Spielberg to deliver refined performances with marvelous chemistry – Streep’s understated work in Graham’s crucial moment of decision demonstrates why she is the most Oscar-nominated person in history. The competition might be too fierce to afford The Post many Oscars, but the film is still one of 2017’s most essential.