Steven Spielberg is really good at making movies.
We all know that, of course; we all love Jaws and Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. But a movie like The Post , a movie that tells so cleanly and forcefully a knotty procedural tale, reminds us just how good he really is.
Just watch his camera follow Washington Post editor Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) as she walks past a group of women outside the doors of the New York Stock Exchange to stand among the men inside. Watch him move in one unbroken take through the home of editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) to highlight reporters pouring over the Pentagon Papers, lawyers debating the consequences of printing them, and Bradlee’s family coping with the mess. Watch his simple hand-held shot of a reporter’s desk quaking as the printing press below churns out the paper’s monumental issue.
With a touch this deft, one could switch off the sound and still follow the story of Graham asserting control over the paper she inherited by defying the Nixon administration and printing documents that reveal the government’s machinations in Viet Nam. There’s no need to get mired in names that viewers younger than 40 only know from history class. Spielberg’s direction moves us through the narrative.
Which isn’t to say that first time screenwriter Liz Hannah’s script, crafted with an assist from Oscar winner Josh Springer (Spotlight) is a mess. Although dense with incident, Hannah and Springer keep focused on the national stakes of the country’s relationship to executive power and the personal sakes of Graham’s transformation from society woman to the head of a reputable investigative newspaper.
That said, turning off the sound would lose both John Williams’s subtle, tasteful score and some fantastic performances. The supporting cast — which includes television standouts such as Matthew Rhys, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, and comedy duo David Cross and Bob Odenkirk — follow Hanks’s lead and squeeze an impressive amount of nuance out of their limited roles. In every instance, from Michael Cyril Crieghton’s bullpen reporter sheepishly overexplaining his discovery of the papers to Hanks leaning into Bradlee’s squinty stare and growled oneliners, the cast reminds us that they’re at the top of their game.
That’s even more true of Meryl Streep, who reveals a powerful woman manifesting underneath Graham’s soothing tones and hospitable smile. When that woman finally emerges onto the national stage, Streep plays it with both determination and discomfort, fully humanizing what could have been an easy hero moment.
In light of such a strong central female role, it’s a shame the other women’s parts are so underdeveloped. Sarah Paulson as Bradlee’s wife and Allison Brie as Graham’s daughter get little more to do than encourage their family members, and Deirdre Lovejoy, who was so amazing in The Wire, only gets to respond to Bradlee as his secretary. One cannot help but lament the talent being underused, even though the women all do great with what they’re given.
In this way, the actresses are in line with the rest of film’s cast and crew. The story about the free press defending the people against an abusive President, The Post is very much a movie of our time, and while Spielberg does indulge in an a few sentimentally rousing moments towards the end, it rarely tips into self-importance.
Without too much fanfare or pomp, The Post simply hums along like a well-designed machine, and strong and reliable is comfort enough in such troubling times.