In terms of the most useless reviews I have or will ever write, writing one for The Post has to rank towards the top. It’s a Steven Spielberg directed historical prestige film starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. If there was an award for film most likely to hit exactly your expectations, The Post would win it in a landslide and sure enough, it is exactly the kind of film you would imagine it to be for better or worse. So, forgive me if during much of this review I violate two of the basic rules of film reviewing (not that I’m alone in this, far from it); judge a film in relation to another film instead of on its own accord and consider the film much more in relation to its critical reception and place in modern culture. Otherwise, it would just be talking about a film expected to be good from the moment it was announced being exactly as good and well done as expected.
While the trio above should be enough to get me into the theater (at the very least out of a sense of trying to complete Spielberg’s filmography of which I’m five short presently), I’ll be honest and say that none of them are the reason I checked the film out over its competition. As reliable as they all are, a new film from any of them is hardly something to inspire passion. I also make it a point to generally avoid biopics and the like while they are in the theater unless there is truly something special about it (Darkest Hour for example made the cut because it had the special quality of being a good compromise candidate with the people I went with). Instead, the reason is simply because it has been minted as a likely Best Picture contender (and because I overslept the showing for I, Tonya, a film I intend to see mostly because it is also an Oscar contender).
This year, it functions as both the compromise candidate for those who find The Shape of Water inherently off-putting, won’t vote for Dunkirk or Get Out because of their genre, Lady Bird or its ilk too indie, or oppose Three Billboards because we have stopped caring about quality and instead care about sending a message. That’s not to say it will win, but if it does, it will be because it placed high enough but more importantly appearing on more ballots than its competition with a side dose of serving as a message that Hollywood supports freedom of the press.
That is a good enough segue to discussing the plot of the film which concerns the publishing of the Pentagon Papers (which detailed an internal government report about the lead up to, the failings of, and most importantly the who knew of these details and when regarding the Vietnam War) by the Washington Post. While the Pentagon Papers have been overshadowed in history by its bigger and sexier sequel, The Watergate Scandal, it’s still an essential and well-known piece of history. As a result, it also functions as a prequel to All the President’s Men. I’d say that’s unfair to compare the two, but The Post goes out of its way to make the point explicit. Having a character make a reference at the end of the film that they think there’s only more to come is a fine if somewhat painful wink to the audience to Watergate. Having the film then go and depict the beginning of it shows both a lack of faith in the audience, but also the sense that the film really wants us to know that it is in on the joke.
And that’s the biggest difference between the two and an especially big problem with modern historical movies. The Post can’t just show for example Streep’s conflicted owner of the paper (Kay Graham) as being the object of sexism as men talk over and ignore her and that she could lose everything if she publishes it, she needs a character to spend what feels like half their lines explaining that in detail and how wonderful and brave she is in a big emotional scene. We can’t just have Hanks’ portrayal of executive editor Ben Bradlee’s (played by Jason Robards in All the President’s Men) conflict over how his chumminess with JFK affected his ability to do his job (see also this year’s solid hagiography of him The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee), we have to have multiple scenes explaining explicitly how he is after we have long since gotten the point (poor Sarah Paulson is stuck with both these issues).
Both film’s concern themselves with the small details of how this operation got pulled off with The Post exceeding expectations in the way it adeptly balances showing all the work that went in well before The Washington Post got involved without letting the film feel like it is exceeding its grasp, but the increased focus on the higher orders of the paper lend themselves to way too many repetitive and overly meta feeling speeches to the importance of this event in history. If anything, the movie almost seems to refute its own existence by arguing the value of publishing the papers in the moment and not being concerned with having any separation from the war, and yet it feels exactly like that. In its efforts to portray newspapers as the most important thing to American freedom (writers really do love to talk about how wonderful writers are), it instead comes across as a screenwriter arguing that we should be instead making films of the present and leaving this as merely a historical record, not the vital film that All the President’s Men feels even today. Even justly acclaimed cinematographer’s Janusz Kamiński feels here more functional than Gordon Willis’ fantastic work on the earlier film.
As for the cast, since this is a film very visibly trying to win it some Oscar gold with plenty of award show clips for each actor, it’s unsurprisingly deep and filled with quality performances. Even the scenes that my brain filled in as preceding with “And Meryl Streep for The Post” are well done as Spielberg clearly knows how to get the best out of his actors. It’s got comedy actors (the cast of Mr. Show even though Bob Odenkirk is probably better known for drama now, Alison Brie, and Zach Woods), actors who already turned in performances in Best Picture contenders (Bradley Whitford and Michael Stuhlbarg), prestige TV leads (Odenkirk, Brie, Paulson, Matthew Rhys, and Carrie Coon), and the always underappreciated Bruce Greenwood (who along with Odenkirk and Jessie Plemons probably give the film’s best performances). With the exception of Brie, who as much as I like in comedies can give performances in dramas that feel overly affected, there are no weak links in acting and any issues in character feel like they are inherent to Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s (who’s Spotlight felt a bit guilty of as well) overdone writing.
I’ve spent most of this review criticizing, minimizing, and negatively comparing The Post, but don’t get me wrong, it’s still a very good film. I can’t even say I’d be upset to see it win Best Picture partly because it feels safely future proofed (though sometimes those safe picks still turn out to be pretty laughable like A Beautiful Mind) and does convey a positive message (a message the film is eager to remind you of over and over again), but it’s just not something I could ever see myself getting passionate over. As bold an act as publishing the Pentagon Papers was, The Post never tries to replicate that boldness and instead just settles for being a well-made and crowd-pleasing title and there’s always going to be a place for such films.