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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Review: THE POST is polished storytelling (with a Spielberg ending)

The president is using threats and lawsuits to keep embarrassing information about his administration from being published, allegedly for the good of the American people. Are we in Trump-era 2018 or Nixon-era 1970s? You'd be forgiven in seeing the extreme parallels between modern day politics and the politics of The Post: the concepts grounding the film feel eerily prescient today, particularly as a beleaguered White House constantly finds itself going head-to-head with the titular publication.

The Post is Steven Spielberg's crack at the microgenre of films dedicated to demonstrating the power of an independent press in keeping the powerful accountable. It's hard not to compare it to a recent effort, Spotlight, which had a similarly sprawling, talented cast of actors chasing a variety of leads until they could break the kind of story that changes history.

The Post focuses on The Washington Post's publisher, Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), who was the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, and her working relationship with editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). As Graham prepares to take The Post public on the stock exchange, The New York Times releases information on what we now refer to as The Pentagon Papers - documents that revealed lies about the United States' involvement in Vietnam. These lies spanned decades and several administrations, but when the Nixon administration obtained an injunction against The New York Times from publishing the documents, Bradlee saw an opportunity for The Washington Post to reassert itself as a powerful presence in the fifth estate. While Bradlee pushed to publish the information, Graham's advisers forcibly urged her to stay out of the issue, for fear of endangering the paper during a critical moment in its financial history.

The Post would have felt a bit more revolutionary if not for coming on the heels of Spotlight, which I think was an all around tighter and more focused narrative. Between Streep, Hanks, and Spielberg, The Post feels almost like a reminder of the time period we're in today: it doesn't feel like the 90s were that along ago, but the combination of Hanks, Streep, and Spielberg no longer feel like the actors and director of the moment. The three are more like icons who are in the middle of a transition from contemporary to classic. Hanks and Streep give solid performances, but are also so entrenched as, well, Hanks and Streep, that even the most forced of accents makes it hard to see them as anybody else. It's great to see them do their thing and do it well, but they almost outrank the subtly of the film and its parts.

That said, I thought the highlight performance of the film was from Bob Odenkirk, whose recent work on Better Call Saul, in combination with The Post, has shown him stretch his acting muscles considerably. There are a number of other strong performers in the film, including Carrie Coon, Bruce Greenwood, Alison Brie, Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, and Matthew Rhys, but their parts are too small to really register.

As for Spielberg, I was mostly impressed with his restraint: it dragged at times, but by and large The Post felt like a fairly fresh take for the director. It's a film I wouldn't have identified as his own if I had to pick it out of a line up, which is a credit to Spielberg. There are a few exceptions to this - moments of Streep walking down steps and being adored by an inexplicably primary-female group of onlookers, small exchanges between Streep and unnamed characters just to remind the audience of her strength. And the film's ending, which is a step above a screen full of comments summarizing the events following the film, at least, but still feels very Spielberg - an exclamation mark on an otherwise quiet, reserved sentence.

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