The First Amendment to the United States Constitution remains one of the most potent tools in American society and to the model of any free Western state; in the present time we once again see the principle of freedom of the press challenged with notions of “fake news” and it’s this topical atmosphere that lends itself as a comparative analysis to Steven Spielberg’s historical drama The Post.
Chronicling the decision by the major American newspapers The New York Times and The Washington Post (though the latter is the spotlighted publication), to publish sensitive classified government documents on the ongoing Vietnam War in 1971, The Post is a work of great tribute. A tribute not just to the men and women involved in the decision making, but more importantly a tribute to the pursuit of what is right in the face of daunting challenges. Yet despite this inspiring adulation to these free press heroes, the movie often ventures into melodrama and alters some historical facts to fit its narrative.
While these two newspapers did break ground by publishing The Pentagon Papers, the film seems to inflate their importance and their decision to publish as a matter of a life or death sort of thing; it’s also interesting to note that The Washington Post is chosen for the title of the film and presented as the main protagonists when The New York Times was just as prominent in releasing these items.
Facing off against the government for the right to a free press was an essential endeavor to undertake and the precedent set by these two chains was undoubtedly important, but still, there seems to be an over lionization of these key players. It is however because of the current Presidential Administration that this film seems even more important and pertinent and one must wonder how much influence current affairs had on the production of this film. The glorification of the film’s characters seems justified because of what we see on the news cycle daily, but would the film have the same effect if released during the Obama Administration?
"One of the film's strengths can also be seen as its weakness; it tells an important and valuable message but one that's manufactured too closely to current events to achieve maximum resonance."
Though its themes of freedom of speech are timeless the connection to the present day seems just a little too convenient. Some may see this film as a way to indirectly attack Donald Trump, and indeed scenes of Richard Nixon seem to create the parallel of current paranoia in the White House. This isn’t to say that making parallels between these events in the 70’s and today aren’t right, it’s just that it seems overly contrived. And so one of the film’s strengths can also be seen as its weakness; it tells an important and valuable message but one that’s manufactured too closely to current events to achieve maximum resonance.
Despite all this, the film is very well made and the lead acting is once again reliably excellent. Meryl Steep and Tom Hanks deliver in a low key manner but one that still leaves an impression; also of note is Bob Odenkirk in a solid supporting role worthy of awards consideration. As Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee respectively, Streep and Hanks embody the essence of the hard working American (even if the script exalts them a little bit) and their on-screen chemistry is natural for their first time working together. Awards nominations should not be a surprise, especially for Streep, and though wins may not be likely seeing these two acting giants at work is a win in itself.
From a visual perspective, Spielberg has managed to create a sense of excitement and uncertainty with seemingly ordinary images; the sight of a newsroom or the press machines printing may seem like uninspired vistas but he manages to make them come alive. From the small things like the constant sound of typewriters and phones ringing to the confined space of boardrooms and hotel rooms, The Post is indeed creative and effective in its use of set pieces. Before the advent of digital media, its great to see this “old fashioned” journalism in its glory. No emails, cell phones or printers. Just one on one contacts, pay phones and ink and paper to reveal the truth. Who knew that the sight of newspapers being assembled a sentence at a time could be so elegant and mesmerizing?
John Williams’ score is subtle in its effectiveness but again not surprisingly delivers the goods; the track “The Presses Roll” especially captures the mood well (if occasionally like the screenplay makes the story more majestic then it should be). With the score and Spielberg’s ability to make grand these office scenes, the film successfully creates an aura of great importance.
The Post is a very good film from a master filmmaker that falters only in its seemingly over-reliance on current affairs to sell its point. Obviously, there is no direct correlation to current events in the White House, but through subtle jabs at the Nixon presidency and its questionable release date, one can’t help but feel the movie was made specifically to poke Trump. If everything in this film remained the same but was released ten years ago would it be as lauded? While the acting, direction, score and set design are excellent it’s possible that without this current political climate it wouldn’t be as appreciated.
Perhaps then Spielberg and the screenwriters ( Liz Hannah and Josh Singer) should have had more confidence that this story could still be effectively told without the aid of current events. Regardless the movie is entertaining and thought-provoking and whether one decides to make comparisons to the present day or not, its message of free speech is one that will always make headlines.