Sometimes, a movie that emerges as a critical darling turns out to be overhyped — especially among the movie press as observers try to steer the conversation toward a particular film as a Academy Award favorite. Midway through January (and a week before the Oscar nominations are announced), no film has really emerged as the Best Picture front-runner. But The Post was at the top of many year-end lists and honored by many film critics groups as the best movie of 2017.
As often happens nowadays, studios decide to hold Best Picture contenders until after the holidays — except in New York and Los Angeles, and other large markets — with the intention of being the last movie Academy voters see before filling out their ballots and driving the discussion leading up to the big awards ceremony. It’s frustrating for moviegoers in many regions who want to get a look at the most acclaimed films (or, uh, want to write about them, notably before the end of the year), but the early buzz can act as a guide to which ones are most worth seeing.
On occasion, however, that hype can be misleading. What the critics love isn’t necessarily something audiences respond to. With a cast headlined by Oscar powerhouses Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, and directed by Steven Spielberg, The Post looks like a film that can’t fail. With a true story involving the government trying to suppress the news and deceive the people, the power of the press, and a woman standing up for herself and her company in a world dominated by men (rich ones, at that), you have a movie perfectly suited to respond to current events.
But is The Post really one of the best movies of the year or were critics swept up by a film that celebrates the best of the journalism profession and the media as an institution?
This is journalism porn at its finest
It’s easy to see why those who work in the media have responded so strongly to this movie. Just about any reporter can relate to having information withheld or those in authority attempting to suppress a story.
Obviously, the stakes were far higher for the Washington Post (and the New York Times before them), executive editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham. Publishing classified information that could potentially put soldiers in jeopardy during the Vietnam War was a decision that could have put writers, editors and executives in jail. The newspaper could have been bankrupted as a company, and just when Graham was attempting to take the Post public to keep it afloat.
But at a time when the media is frequently under attack and experiencing more scrutiny than ever — due in large part to the current administration’s attempt to delegitimize the credibility of the press and any effort to report on actions and policies that affect the American people — the message of The Post resonates loudly, something that everyone involved with this film realizes.
Carrie Coon’s monologue near the end of the film is akin to a mission statement. It’s easy to imagine that Spielberg (along with writers Josh Singer — who wrote 2015’s Spotlight — and Liz Hannah) was directly addressing the Trump administration in that scene. Scenes of the consequential edition of the Post that published the Pentagon Papers going through the printing press are like watching aircraft launching toward war or superheroes suit up.
Speaking of superheroes, Spielberg shoots Graham and Bradlee like mythological figures, tilting the camera up toward them with arms folded or hands on hips. They were larger-than-life icons in the journalism industry. Along with the reporters in their newsroom — notably Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), who got his hands on the crucial documents after working a longtime source — they recognized their responsibility to the country to report the truth and hold authorities accountable for decisions that cost tens of thousands their lives.
Ultimately, this is Katharine Graham’s story
Though the pursuit of the Pentagon Papers, the effort to sift through the unorganized documents and publish the story against intense legal pressure makes Bradlee and the Post reporters significant characters, Graham is arguably the most important figure in this narrative. Her plotline runs parallel to the journalistic thriller, making her the moral compass of the story.
Spielberg makes it very clear what Graham was up against in 1971. At least twice in the film, he takes the viewer through double doors into smoke-filled boardrooms full of men, rich men who are accustomed to being power players and decision makers.
To that point, the Post was a family business and was a distant second to the New York Times despite being Washington, D.C.’s newspaper. Taking the company public was necessary for the paper’s survival, though plenty of people on its board doubted the decision, the stock price for that public offering, and Graham’s ability to lead the company through this transition.
At first, Graham is a frustrating character to follow, seemingly more concerned with continuing to throw the high society parties for which she and her family were known. Her social life was also comprised of conflicting relationships that were literally a journalistic obstacle, something that causes tension between her and Bradlee. (In the 1970s before Watergate, reporters and editors were much chummier with politicians.)
Eventually, Graham has to make a decision — not just for her newspaper, but for herself. It’s inexplicable that she may not have been taken seriously, but that was a product of the times. Graham did a whole hell of a lot to change that, a point that Spielberg probably hits too squarely on the nose in climactic scenes. But it’s difficult to blame. Graham is an important, inspirational figure in the history of media and for women in positions of power.
Streep conveys all of Graham’s inner conflicts wonderfully. Even without dialogue, her face tells you everything you need to know. It feels like a Captain Obvious statement to say that Streep is outstanding, and there are frequents jokes about her getting an Oscar nomination every time she goes in front of the camera. But her portrayal of Graham will remind you what a tremendous actor she is, and Spielberg gives her performance all the support it needs.
Some detractors have pointed out that the New York Times played a far bigger role in history than The Post depicts. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but I felt the movie was more than fair about that, making it apparent that the Post was constantly chasing the Times and may have only broken this story because the courts were interfering with the more prominent newspaper.
But Spielberg is at the top of his game, even if the subject matter might seem more pedestrian than the blockbusters we associate him with. He also has a very deep cast to work with — including Sarah Paulson, Jesse Plemons, Alison Brie, Michael Stuhlbarg, Matthew Rhys, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood and David Cross — that will make plenty of moviegoers smile and think “Hey, isn’t that…?” The movie knows the responsibility it has in getting the story right, much like the newspapers being portrays, and hits every note. The Post truly is one of the best movies of the year (2017).