In the pantheon of Steven Spielberg’s body of work, a film like The Post probably wouldn’t make the Top 10. There are so many others to consider his best, or representative of the filmmaker himself. And yet, I keep coming back to The Post more so than others for one simple reason: how urgent the movie feels since its release in 2017.
The Post tells the story of the “Pentagon Papers,” Robert McNamara’s decade-long study into the Vietnam War and the fight against Communism. Seeing how damaging the revelations were, McNamara’s findings weren’t supposed to see the light of day. Until whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg smuggles the papers out of government offices and hands them over to the press. Key figures in the Washington Post, Kay Graham the publisher (Meryl Streep) and Ben Bradlee the Post’s editor (Tom Hanks), grapple with the Shakespearean and wholly modern question in the digital age: “To post or not to post?”
The Post could just as easily have been a play. All of this takes place in interiors, rooms, darkened offices, tight closeups on the phone, etc. It almost reads as an anti-Spielberg movie – a filmmaker renowned for his thrilling set-pieces and epic visual style. This is where Spielberg gets to work his virtuoso stage magic, making a dialogue-heavy story feel just as cinematic as it is vital.
Blocking a.k.a. the movement and placement of the actors in the frame. NOBODY blocks like Spielberg, and this has held true since Jaws. He may be confined to a district in the capital, but he never loses sight of the moving parts and the wider implications of the story. We revolve around the same recurring spaces like The Post’s offices, Kay’s home, and Ben’s home. But there’s so much movement involved that it never feels static. The way the movie is paced and edited, you’d think this was a Formula 1 race.
Characters pace around the room or around each other, getting in the way, sometimes positioning themselves like devils on a shoulder. When characters are still, Spielberg pans the camera every which way like we’re caught in the chaos of the newsroom. The big revelations come via dialogue captured in stark closeup, but Spielberg finds a way to inject movement in the scene, however rapid or subtle. If the blocking mimics how harried a democracy is as opposed to a finely-tuned machine ready at the press of a button like, say, the printing press, then you’ve got it. (See also: Lincoln.)
Equally important is the context in which Spielberg wanted to tell the story – at the onset of a certain administration entering the White House. Spielberg was knee-deep in post-production on Ready Player One when said administration was underway, alleging voter fraud, reupping birther conspiracies, and carrying out taunts against any and all press who didn’t shower him with glowing praise, all in the first few months of office. Imagine that, Spielberg was so incensed politically that he stepped away from a current project to start (and complete) another.
Liz Hannah’s script was completed and bought by producer Amy Pascal just before the 2016 election. By the time Pascal sent the script to Spielberg, he could not ignore the prescient parallels to the present. The Post represents Spielberg at his most reactionary, and, for a filmmaker who routinely drops 2 movies in one year, among the swiftest he’s ever responded to the current state of affairs. This is second only to Minority Report, a film that predated the War on Terror’s M.O. of arresting people before they committed any actual crimes.
On the one hand, this is Spielberg “being political.” But I’ll contend that Spielberg is simply continuing his humanist touch as a sentimental storyteller. Films like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan are humanist stories. His early 2000s run of Minority Report, War of the Worlds, and Munich may entrench themselves politically with 9/11 anxieties, but these are stories told with an empathy for human lives at the individual level. It’s the same case with The Post. The only difference is that some people probably don’t jive with the pro-journalism message when FAKE NEWS has become a rallying cry. (Surely it’s possible to criticize the media without burning up a key democratic function???) Mind you, Spielberg isn’t telling you who to vote for, but he is advocating for certain structures put in place for a reason – to protect our individual freedoms.
Daniel Ellsberg, as on-the-ground correspondent, sees the hopelessness of the Vietnam war firsthand and reports his findings to the study’s architect, Robert McNamara. McNamara then promptly lies to the public despite these findings, and this uncovers years of president after president, term after term, where officials took to the press and presented false statement after false statement that they were “winning” the war, even as the death toll soared to 200,000. (The press at least prints retractions, whereas administrations just double down.) Spielberg asks the same question he posed in Schindler’s List except this time he directs it at the government: HOW COULD YOU NOT CARE ABOUT THE HUMAN COST? Spielberg goes beyond this being un-American; it’s wholly inhuman.
The Post’s existential dilemma is how the hell do they hold the White House accountable—and a Nixon-White House at that. But here’s the thing: that’s always been the press’ function as described in the Constitution. When did we forget that? As Spielberg’s camera zeroes in, turns out we forget this time and time again.
Of course there’s scrutiny. OF COURSE we’re not going to like the coverage at all times, because people in power pull shady shit from time to time, and that’s dispiriting to read no matter what left or right-wing publication you subscribe to. In times of crisis, we rely on these institutions for safety and stability, so we have a right to know regardless. The American people foot the bill, and worse – American lives often pay the price for government secrets.
Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee hammers again and again what’s at stake whenever he’s stonewalled by The Post’s board members and tranches of lawyers. But the responsibility of it all falls on Kay Graham. SHE has to make the decision whether to print or not to print – a moment that Meryl Streep can act out in her sleep. Top to bottom, the cast is magnificently decked out with the best character actors in film and television: Matthew Rhys, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Carrie Coon, Michael Stuhlbarg. We also get a mini-Breaking Bad reunion with Bob Odenkirk, Jesse Plemons, AND David Costabile rounding out the supporting cast. Papers sell copy; these actors sell the conflict’s urgency.
We get so up in arms over free speech when a pundit or comedian gets gut-checked with criticism that we forget there are actual first amendment consequences when an administration tries to strong-arm the press to do as it pleases. You’d think we’d have this down, too, in a time when everyone’s concerned with “freedoms” being taken away. Now we can’t tell down from up anymore.
Fritz Beebe: If the government wins and we’re convicted, the Washington Post as we know it will cease to exist.
Ben Bradlee: If we live in a world where the government could tell us what we can and cannot print, then the Washington Post as we know it has already ceased to exist.
Liz Hannah’s script is blunt and piercing like a gavel this way. So you get lines like, “If we don’t hold them accountable, then, my God, who will?” or “The only way to protect the right to publish is to publish” or a tearful Carrie Coon reiterating Justice Black, “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” When presidents are more concerned with preserving state secrets instead of human lives, or fine-tuning their own propaganda machines in front of our eyes, perhaps there’s no room for subtlety anymore. Maybe Hannah’s script is on a certain administration’s wavelength by “telling it like it is.”
Post 9/11, the look of Spielberg’s movies changed dramatically. He loved colors in the image. When you get to Minority Report, the lighting is a bit different. It doesn’t accentuate the colors anymore like in Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jurassic Park. From Minority Report, War of the Worlds, and Munich, everything feels washed out and grey. Like the music’s gone, or his earnest belief in institutions have died out. 21st Century Spielberg welcomed a darkness in his movies that wasn’t there before, and felt like it was here to stay.
The Post, then, represents another shift or a return. He lets more of that earnest light back into the frame gradually through the story as if he’s hopeful again. Sure, we get some painfully on-the-nose lighting cues when the Supreme Court rules in The Post and The NY Times’ favor, literally signaling toward nobility and virtue. That’s the sentiment of Spielberg for ya. Even Minority Report and War of the Worlds – both brutal allegories of a post-9/11 world – have a happy ending.
His films have charted through some of the worst of humanity’s history. Yet no matter how much darker he may tread as a storyteller, he is still a believer in people doing the right thing—in hope winning out, and truth and justice prevailing. And he is firmly a believer in the due diligence of the press and our democracy, however it may stumble. “We don’t always get it right. We’re not always perfect,” Kay says pointedly. “But if we just keep on it, that’s the job, isn’t it?”
Steven Spielberg is the ultimate sentimental filmmaker. You can count on him to do a “good triumphing over evil” story, even if that evil sits in the Oval Office. But it’s also nice to see Spielberg raising a middle finger to the government from time to time.