Publish and/or Perish.
It’s easy to believe that there are actually two Steven Spielbergs. After all, he’s spent the majority of career alternating between rich, nuanced dramas like Schindler’s List and Lincoln, and broad, sweeping entertainments like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. Serious Oscar contenders and mainstream summer blockbusters don’t always go hand in hand. On the surface, he looks a lot like a filmmaker divided.
But the best of Spielberg’s films find the right balance between sense and sensationalism, telling big stories with a dash of subtlety, and subtle stories that pick just the right moment to overpower you. The Post is one of those Spielberg productions, an assured historical drama that gradually transforms an interoffice, ethical journalistic dilemma into a tipping point that helped shape the future of the whole nation.
The Post stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks as Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee, the publisher and editor of The Washington Post, respectively. Their newspaper went public the same week that The New York Times published pieces of The Pentagon Papers, which revealed – in great detail – the American government’s corrupt manipulations of the Vietnam War. President Nixon orders an injunction against The New York Times, and that leaves The Washington Post in a position to potentially continue the controversial reportage, transform the whole conversation about the war, and finally become a major player in the field of journalism.
But of course, it’s a decision with serious consequences. If the government strikes back at The Washington Post, right after the newspaper goes public, Kay Graham could lose the company. Her employees could lose their jobs, possibly even go to prison, and her many friends in Washington – some of whom, allegedly, had only the best intentions – will be implicated, and essentially destroyed.
It’s easy to have principles when those principles are never tested, and The Post is entirely about that test. Ben Bradlee stands for journalistic integrity, believing that reporting The Pentagon Papers is so overwhelmingly righteous that any and all consequences are justified. (And it sure as heck wouldn’t hurt their circulation.) Kay Graham, however, wants to do the right thing but can’t escape the personal context. Lives destroyed, the paper potentially scuttled, and to top it all off she’s still living in an actively sexist world, where the publisher of The Washington Post is expected to leave the room after dinner to let the men talk about world affairs.
In many respects, Meryl Streep is playing her most nuanced character in years. Kay Graham has never been permitted to fill a room with her personality, and accepts – with varying degrees of reluctance – that she’s sidelined at her own company. When her father died he left The Washington Post in the hands of her (now late) husband, and she was fine with that, but it’s hers now and taking full control is more complicated than putting up a sign that says “The Buck Stops Here.” She has to evolve into the most confident, powerful version of herself over the course of just a few days, and do so in the face of imminent threat and a lifetime of ingrained social oppression.
The Post is, at its core, a story about whether or not to publish a newspaper story. That’s a small story, and much of it takes the straightforward form of a heated debate. But while Steven Spielberg doesn’t quite capture the realistic day-to-day hustle and bustle of the newspaper business the way All the President’s Men did, and maybe a little more of that could have gone a long way, he’s exceptional at using cinematic gravitas to elevate all this jargon into the stuff legends are made of. His camera angles are portentous, his visual metaphors as portentous as earthquakes, and they all feel just about right.