Film Review: 'The Post'
On the surface, The Post has all the makings of a smash hit: directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. It's a triumphant tale about courageous journalists led by the nation's first-ever female newspaper publisher. They take on political cover-ups and corruption in spite of all the attacks, threats and litigations that come their way. The timing is perfect: it's a movie released during the tenure of a President that routinely lashes out at the press. Through the film, there are echoes and reflections of today's climate in 1970's America. It's got two Oscar nominations for supporting actress (Streep) and best picture to boot.
The effect: simultaneously overstuffed and underwhelming.
There's no doubt that The Post is well-intentioned, but this time, it's to a fault. The film is a Hollywood re-telling of Washington Post publisher Kay Graham (Streep), the first-ever female newspaper publisher in the United States, and managing editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks), as they take on the scoop of the century: leaked papers from the Pentagon that prove U.S. presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson all covered up critical facts from the Vietnam War to justify continued involvement. It ignited a battle between a then-tiny newspaper and the powerful federal government and sparked a debate of the balance between a free press, guaranteed under the First Amendment, and the need for national security.
The rest is history.
So, in adapting the story to film, all of these items should speak for themselves. Yet in The Post, Spielberg has made the film so heavy-handed in its sentimentalities that it's off-putting, as if he tries to guarantee his audience isn't missing the point of the movie. Not a scene goes by that attempts to inject some sort of platitude or sound a trumpet in honor of the film's real-life counterparts. We know that Spielberg is capable of toning things down while still crafting a film that honors real-life heroes; look no further than Schindler's List. But the ingredients here are a little too concentrated and the subtleties are minimal. It's a formula we've seen before: undoubtedly successful but not exactly innovative.
Streep and Hanks, two of the most lauded and decorated actors of our time, deliver performances well below their own standards. Not to say they are objectively awful; rather that we've come to expect better from them. Hanks, playing an iron-headed newspaper editor, brings an overly theatrical performance better suited for the stage. Streep oversells her real-life counterpart's insecurities. We understand - and at times, empathize with - their flaws, but there's no need to be beaten over the head with them. These are exactly the kind of performances Spielberg likes in his films: with a more melodramatic flair reminiscent of classic Hollywood. But here's a classic example of too much of a good thing.
The Post does find some saving graces in its supporting cast, headlined by Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) as one of The Post's astute and quick-thinking reporters, and Matthew Rhys (The Americans) in several key scenes as whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg himself. Spielberg runs a tight ship, being incredibly efficient in his pacing of the film. The conclusion of the film is appropriately feel-good. Yet the general lack of portion control and innovation kills a story that is exactly the kind of tale we need to hear right now.
And that's the great irony of The Post: the dials are turned up to the max, but the film underachieves.
Rated PG-13. 116 minutes.
Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Sarah Paulson.