A woman, making a decision. In essence, that’s how you could boil down the plot of Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Post’, and seeing as it's his first female-led film since 1985’s ‘The Colour Purple’, I cannot tell you how satisfying that is to say.
Rushed into production and made at a breakneck pace over nine months of the past year (more than partially in response to our current political climate, but we’ll get to that later), the film urgently dramatises the momentous events surrounding the publishing of the Pentagon Papers; thousands of pages of multiple decades’ worth of government secrets exposing cataclysmic lies about the war in Vietnam. After initial reporting from The New York Times results in their silencing by the White House itself, it falls to The Washington Post and its still green, first-ever female publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) to take up the fight, alongside famed editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and a team of dedicated reporters. It’s a thrilling, timely story, but all the more so because this watershed moment in history is framed as the self-discovery and self-realisation of a complex, fascinating woman, finally getting her well-deserved time in the cultural spotlight.
In what amounts to their first real collaboration (barring her brief voice work on ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’), Streep and Spielberg have struck gold, each pushing the other to deliver some of their best work in years. Streep in particular is fantastic, mining the fraught tensions within this woman for some of the most deeply felt and mesmerising work of her long and storied career. Her Kay Graham, a former socialite turned first female head of a Fortune 500 company, is faced with an impossible task: forced to decide between risking the business she inherited from her late husband, and he from her late father, not to mention all of the livelihoods that depend on it, or stand by as a corrupt government lies to its people and continues to sacrifice the lives of innocents for nothing.
Sure, to some the revered actress might be, well, let’s say the "smashed avo" of performers – overpraised, oversaturated and, well, over – but her consummate conjuring of this highly influential woman’s personal evolution is, frankly, astounding. While yes, guilty, I am more than a little enamoured with the woman who I believe to be one of the greatest actors of all time, but believe me when I say that her work here is truly one of her greatest achievements. From moment to moment, Streep is completely engaged and crackling with energy, forging fascinatingly alive dynamics with each of her scene partners, while never losing track of the profound self-doubt and fear of failure that weigh on her character at all times.
As in his other historical epics, be it ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘Amistad’ or ‘Lincoln’, Spielberg approaches this huge historical moment by zeroing in on the weighing of one life amongst a greater cause. But where ‘The Post’ sets itself apart from those male-centric dude-fests is in its focusing on a hugely influential woman, and, even more impressively, in having that woman be the one who is herself weighing her own life against said cause, as she even questions her very right to do so. The film is fascinated by the process of her decision-making, allowing her to be a figure of indecision as she wrestles with the demands of a job she never asked for, and never expected to have in the first place. Here, Kay Graham is not a pat, stereotypically ball-busting, women-can-have-it-all go-getter; she is not the Miranda Priestley of hard-hitting journalism (at least, not yet). No, she is a human being, a mother of four, a homemaker; she is someone who was always told where her place was, and admits herself that she never thought to question that. As written by first-time feature writer Liz Hannah (as well as ‘Spotlight’s' Josh Singer, who polished the screenplay before filming), it is a compellingly grounded portrait of a great historical figure, and from Streep it is textured, nimble work. Fascinatingly, the character and performance becomes a sort of Northern Star for a film that does occasionally betray its hurried production schedule onscreen – though I don’t think that’s necessarily a negative here.
There’s a brazen sort of electricity pulsing through the film that is hard to disregard; a forthrightness, a boldness, a purpose that is so intrinsic to its very nature that it becomes impossible to disentangle it from the text of the film.
Indeed, there’s a brazen sort of electricity pulsing through the film that is hard to disregard; a forthrightness, a boldness, a purpose that is so intrinsic to its very nature that it becomes impossible to disentangle it from the text of the film. While it would be farcical to call a filmmaker of Spielberg’s stature underrated in any context, he is occasionally underestimated for how of-the-moment and politically or culturally attuned he can be to the global public consciousness. Yes, his work here is unsubtle, and at times downright embarrassing – but sheeple, we are living through unsubtle, downright embarrassing times. This is the impassioned screed of a group of artists responding to the troubling, troubled moment we are living through, and attempting to do and say something about it in the most far-reaching and widely entertaining way possible. Other films will be more reserved, more nuanced, more challenging, and I cannot wait to see them and celebrate them. Yet not every film needs to match those descriptions, and sometimes what we need is the exact opposite. Spielberg and his collaborators are painting with broad, bold strokes, but the passion and verve with which they’re throwing themselves into those strokes is thrilling to behold.
Those collaborators, be it Janusz Kaminski and his roving, racing camerawork, Michael Kahn and his bombastic, occasionally overly-emphatic editing, or Ann Roth and her unexpectedly yet wondrously iconic costume design (seriously, Streep’s climactic outfit is a gasp-inducing successor to the green dress from ‘Atonement’, and will most definitely be my next Halloween costume) are each and every one of them completely attuned to Spielberg and his vision. So too are the able supporting cast, from co-lead Hanks to the stupefyingly stacked bench of TV greats rounding things out – Carrie Coon, Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys, Sarah Paulson and Tracy Letts in particular each giving shrewdly and economically sketched performances from the sidelines.
This is the energised, vital work of hardworking, decent people, in turn celebrating the energised and vital work of hardworking, decent people. It may be unapologetically blatant in its use of one historical moment to comment on its relevance to our current historical moment, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is a fascinating adrenaline shot of optimism and hope at a time when such a thing is sorely needed. And if there is a single cinematic moment that eclipses when this woman does indeed make that decision, then 2018 will have been a damn fine year indeed.