It used to be that Steven Spielberg was pretty much exclusively “the blockbuster guy” and when he made a relatively small movie (emphasis on “relatively”) like The Color Purple or Empire of the Sun that was considered to be something of a novelty. For the first thirty years of his career that was pretty much the case and he’s make one “movie for grownups” for every three crowd pleasing blockbusters. But then something seemed to change about ten years ago. He was still making blockbusters, or at least attempted blockbusters, but somewhere along the way the “small” movies started to become more successful than the big ones. In fact it could be argued that, if you count Lincoln and Munich in with the “small” Spielberg movies, he actually hasn’t made a well-liked and fondly remembered blockbuster since 2005’s War of the Worlds. That isn’t to say he’s fallen on his face when he has tried to work on a bigger canvas: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull certainly made money even if it was only through name recognition, The Adventures of Tintin has its fans even though there’s a good chance you forgot it existed until I just mentioned it, and War Horse was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar despite seemingly no one caring about it. Then last year he made a truly dismal attempt at speaking to the youth of America with The BFG, an oddity which to me is plainly the worst movie he’s ever made and which was rightfully ignored at the box office. Meanwhile his smaller movies like Bridge of Spies and the aforementioned Lincoln were quietly triumphant little movies than one could hardly level a single complaint towards despite not necessarily setting the world on fire. His latest film, The Post certainly seems to be sitting in that category and sure enough it seems a lot more on target than his attempts at popcorn cinema.
The Post tells the story of the release of the Pentagon Papers from the very specific perspective of the Washington Post newsroom. After a short prolog where we witness Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) becoming increasingly disillusioned with American progress in Vietnam before deciding to break into the RAND corporation’s locked files and making photocopies of Robert McNamara’s controversial secret study of the war. From there we cut to Washington where Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the heir to the Washington Post Company, is planning to take the newspaper public in order to give it a more prominent place in American news culture. That is of course informed by the way the Post is something of a second fiddle publication compared to The New York Times and their competitiveness with that esteemed “paper of record” increases when it’s learned that they’ve obtained Ellsberg’s leaked documents and are beginning to publish them. Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sends his people out to compete, including Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) who manages to track Ellsberg down and obtain a copy of the Pentagon Papers, but when the courts rule against the Times the prospect of publishing their own stories based on the papers launches a lot of existential questions for everyone at the paper about what duty the press has to stand up to government that’s attempting to cover up its own mistakes.
The main talking point about The Post is how topical it is. The screenplay was most likely written with connections to Edward Snowden in mind but it was purchased by Sony in the October of 2016 and production didn’t start on it until late May of 2017 after some re-writes in the ten preceding weeks. As such this is in many ways the first truly post-Trump film to be made by a major filmmaker and everyone involved clearly knew this and leaned into it while still keeping things pretty strictly allegorical. Specifically the film seems to be a rebuke of Donald Trump’s insistence on discarding any criticism against him as “fake news” and his rather Nixonian interest in obstructing the investigations into his dealings through firing people. These connections to today are real and they’re probably intentional, but given the anger that the Trump presidency has engendered I’m not sure that its stance is going to be strong enough to really impress #TheResistance. The film also ties into the debates about gender that have been going on through the Meryl Streep character, who is a woman of a fairly pre-Feminist mentality at the film’s beginning who finds her voice and steps up over the course of the film. Again, that’s a neat little message but compared to the current discourse it isn’t exactly a revolutionary observation.
Ultimately The Post probably works best if you set the modern politics aside and just look at it as a sort of morality thriller. Throughout the movie the characters are scrambling to both get their hands on the Pentagon Papers and determine what to do with them once they have them. Spielberg does a pretty solid job of presenting all the parties involved through his all-star cast and explaining their relevance. And when the characters do start debating the ethics of using the papers and the risks it poses to the paper it does become pretty thrilling and Spielberg does a good job of juggling these weighty discussions with the excitement of the journalists sorting through the papers and putting a story together. Occasionally these discussions dip into being a bit on the nose, but not too far as to be a huge problem. Really it’s a pretty hard movie to have many major complaints about but it’s also not necessarily something that knocks your socks off. That’s especially true within the high standard set by Steven Spielberg’s body of work. Even when compared to his recent dramas I certainly wasn’t as impressed by it as I was with Lincoln and I’m not sure I’d even say I liked it as much as Bridge of Spies, which increasingly stands out as a pretty strong piece of work despite having the same “good but not novel” problem that The Post suffers from… but then again maybe this is only unexciting because Spielberg makes it look too easy. I wouldn’t dissuade anyone who’s interested in this movie from seeing it, it delivers what it promises quite well, but I will say that there are other movies out right now that aim higher.