Review: ‘The Post’ highlights veteran actors yet fails to impress

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 1/23/18 12:50am

“Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep were a bit shoddy in ‘The Post,''' said no one ever. 

Everyone and their mother anticipated that Steven Spielberg’s newest film about The Washington Post’s struggle to publish the Pentagon Papers would net Academy Award buzz for these two seasoned actors, who are among the most well-respected members in their industry. Even though every review I have read, watched or heard about “The Post” mentions how good Hanks and Streep are in the film, of course, I will too. However, there’s a reason for that. 

Our innate expectation that Hanks and Streep will be great belies how refreshing it feels for those expectations to be fulfilled. Yes, both will probably get those Oscar nominations, but deservedly so. As for the movie that surrounds them? It’s well-made, it’s timely, it’s historically informative — and it’s just fine. 

“The Post” is not one of Spielberg’s home runs. It lacks the gravitas of “Schindler’s List,” the gut punch of “Saving Private Ryan,” the attention to detail found in “Lincoln” and the existential introspection of “Munich.” Much like Spielberg’s previous Hanks-driven historical thriller “Bridge of Spies,” there is a comfort and satisfaction to be found in the work of individuals who are so obviously masters of their craft, even if the end result isn’t exactly stellar. 

If the quality of Hanks and Streep’s performances shocks no one, then it might surprise some that the film does not open in a sterile newsroom. Instead, we find ourselves in the thick of the Vietnam War, tracing the experiences of military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys). Although these scenes do eventually connect back to the film’s main story about the Pentagon Papers — Ellsberg, after all, released them — its primary purpose is thematic. The device helps anchor the importance of the papers later on in the film. This isn’t just a story about government lies and conspiracies; it is also about lives needlessly sacrificed fighting an outcome that had long since been determined. In that regard, “The Post” succeeds where many historical dramas fail — we may already know the eventual outcome, but we’re still in suspense as we come to appreciate what exactly is at stake. 

After the brief prologue in Vietnam, we fast forward a few years and meet Streep’s Kay Graham and Hanks’ Ben Bradlee, The Washington Post’s publisher and executive editor, respectively. Graham is a timid recent widow inheriting the newspaper from her father and deceased husband. Bradlee is a frustrated, no-nonsense reporter who is initially among the cohort of men who question Graham’s leadership skills because she is a woman. Given that Streep often plays headstrong characters and Hanks is always the nice guy, it initially appears as though these two are playing against type. Although that turns out not to be entirely true, the subversion of expectations does help lend an extra layer of depth to both performances. 

The film doubles down on present-day parallels, highlighting both Graham’s struggle in a male-dominated work space and Bradlee’s unwavering conviction in the newspaper’s responsibility to uphold the First Amendment despite, or perhaps because of, a corrupt and lying White House. Sometimes these parallels are incorporated deftly; other times they are a little obvious. In certain scenes, it’s hard not to sense Spielberg and screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer knowingly winking at the audience. This all comes to a head during the final scene, which essentially sets up The Washington Post’s involvement in the Watergate scandal. It’s an odd moment and a rather silly way to end an otherwise self-contained and satisfying film. 

The screenplay also shortchanges Graham’s character somewhat during the first half, sometimes only showing her intermittently throughout the drama. To a certain degree, I can understand the dilemma in which the writers probably found themselves. The whole point of Graham’s character arc is that she becomes substantially more involved in the newspaper as the coverage of the Pentagon Papers becomes more contentious. Ergo, it would defeat the whole point of the film for her to be portrayed as a pivotal player during some of the earliest plot developments. That said, there are two back-to-back scenes in the middle of the film where Bradlee’s wife and Graham essentially have monologues exploring Graham’s past and the bevy of internal conflicts she must work through. It proves to be really compelling content, and I only wish that the film had spent more time during the first act building up those aspects of her character. 

That said, when the film does get going during its second half, it is quite riveting. One of the best scenes involves Bradlee and his team of reporters sitting on the floor of his house, surrounded by unsorted pages from the Pentagon Papers, desperately trying to piece together the truth. In many ways, that scene is Spielberg at his best. After decades of being the most recognizable director in Hollywood, Spielberg’s greatest asset is the restraint he shows when depicting subject matter for which he has a certain reverence. He allows the drama to develop naturally, fluidly — it’s the work of an old hand who knows that less is more and his films are all the better for it. 

The closest comparison in recent memory to “The Post” is probably the Best Picture winner from 2015, “Spotlight,” which Singer also co-wrote. While I have no doubt that “The Post” will also be up for serious Oscar consideration, I also have no doubt that “Spotlight” is the superior film. “The Post” might seem timelier, to be sure, but that can also be detrimental because the piece is almost too self-aware. Occasionally, these characters feel more like cyphers commenting on modern day circumstances rather than flesh and blood. “Spotlight,” on the other hand, isn’t burdened in the same way. Its aim was to tell a compelling drama, and in the process it succeeded in becoming a great film. “The Post” is certainly compelling and dramatic in its own right, but it does not achieve the same result.