Steven Spielberg shaped the landscape of filmmaking as it exists today, and then he stopped. Classics like “Jaws”, “Jurassic Park”, and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” originated the structure of New Hollywood, but look at Spielberg’s recent filmography—he’s only directed six movies since 2005, and arguably none of them were great. His seventh in the last twelve years, “The Post”, is a timely political drama about journalism speaking truth to presidential power. Could this be Spielberg’s comeback?
The first few minutes suggest that he’s still directing in his sleep. “The Post” opens in 1970s Vietnam, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River blasting over a wartime sequence—in other words, it begins like half of all historical dramas begin. But once the introductory segment wraps up and Meryl Streep’s character wakes up, “The Post” begins its rickety ascent towards greatness. Steven Spielberg is back, baby.
The film depicts a significant moment in American history: The Washington Post’s publishing of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the length the U.S. had been involved in Vietnam, as well as its level of commitment through the years, that hadn’t been publicly known prior. The true story is fascinating and essential on its own, but the addition of its timeliness has stirred the auteur within Spielberg, and his direction shoots history full of cinematic verve. Stylistically, “The Post” embodies the story’s historical and contemporary significance.
It gets off to a rocky start. The first half chugs through an excess of exposition at too quick a pace, resulting in an uncanny feeling that the film is both drawn out and rushed. Though this sensation puts the audience at an awkward distance, it’s impossible not to be intrigued by Spielberg’s direction. His camera (wielded by cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, his partner since 1993) hasn’t felt this alive in years. It swings about with reckless abandon, running around the actors in frame like a puppy freed from its cage. Sometimes this builds tension; sometimes it’s distracting—regardless, it’s a joy to see Spielberg regaining his sea legs as he sails again.
The lighting design indicates this intentionality as well, using ambient and natural light to shape tone in captivating ways. The lighting oscillates between inspiring and foreboding with the current mood of the movie. Working in conjunction with another rousing score from John Williams, the various design aesthetics of “The Post” give the film weight.
At center stage of the capable cast are Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, who never left the tops of their games. As Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee—the publisher and executive editor of The Washington Post—they sharpen each other’s performances and the story. Hanks saunters and growls through a role that’s actually unfamiliar to his body of work, but even his successful variation can’t outshine Streep. She internalizes the screenplay’s ideas to later externalize them with powerhouse provocation.
The supporting cast is a carousel of Hollywood gravitas, well-oiled and ready to light up the dialogue at every turn. The pace of “The Post” picks up with the procurement of the Pentagon Papers, providing the performers with plenty of possibilities to get our hearts pounding. Bob Odenkirk sinks his teeth into these opportunities, as does an unrecognizable and understated David Cross. Bit parts in a Spielberg movie mean cameos from heavyweights—Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Michael Stuhlbarg; it’s a thrilling name game.
As “The Post” rushes towards its cheesy, celebratory conclusion (which is forgivable—it’s been a downer year), it misses a few chances to take pause and consider the personal implications of speaking truth to power. The stakes of the wider consequences are handled well, but other than important moments of Streep realizing and overcoming the fears of a woman tackling a patriarchal system, the film speeds past the personal. The film’s crowd-pleasing tendencies take over.
But this isn’t a bad direction for Spielberg’s best film in 12 years to take, by any means. Maybe what we need from the movies at our moment in history is an exciting, glorious ode to real news.
★★★★ (4 out of 5)