26 January 2018

The Post review

Like a few of Spielberg's more recent movies, The Post (which sits comfortably alongside Lincoln and Bridge of Spies in what I'm calling Spielberg's "important events in American history" trilogy) is a film with a lot of narrative on its hands. It's telling the story of Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post during the Nixon administration and the difficulties she faced in being taken seriously in a male-dominated environment. It's telling the story of Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of the Washington Post during the release of the Pentagon Papers and, later, the Watergate scandal. And it's telling the story behind The Pentagon Papers, a decades long deception of the American people by the American government in order to maintain public support for a war they know they can't win.

It's a lot, but it works because much like how Bridge of Spies isn't really about the Cold War at all, The Post isn't really about those things either. Instead, it's about the importance of a free press and the vital role they play in any true democracy, which makes The Post feel extremely relevant in the time of Trump and "fake news" accusations. There are speeches given by characters here that may as well be delivered directly to the camera and addressed to 2018 itself, and while that has the potential to come across as preachy, Spielberg's guiding hand alongside Liz Hannah's solid script ensures that's never quite the case, resulting in a film that speaks to its audience rather than at them. It helps, of course, that most of these speeches are delivered by everyone's favourite uncle Tom Hanks, who plays Ben Bradlee much the same way he played James Donovan in Bridge of Spies - intelligent, righteous, and not afraid to speak up in the face of injustice, regardless of the consequences he might face.

But Hanks is just one part of what makes The Post work. Something I'm really enjoying about several of Spielberg's more recent projects is the amount of recognisable actors and actresses he's able to get involved, and The Post offers no exception - you've got Bradley Whitford, Bob Odenkirk, Alison Brie, Bruce Greenwood, Jesse Plemmons and Sarah Paulson rounding out the cast in roles of varying sizes, all of whom manage to leave an impression. But (and this might not come as much of a surprise) it's Meryl Streep who ends up walking away with The Post under her arm, introducing us to Katherine Graham as a nervous and uncertain woman with very little self-belief before transforming her into a confident leader in what is easily The Post's most interesting storyline. It's a shame that we've gotten so used to Meryl Streep receiving award nominations for everything she does - this is a genuinely great performance, and it's frustrating that those who haven't seen The Post might assume that the praise she's receiving is in any way unearned.

Where The Post does falter somewhat, however, is in the actual film-making itself, albeit in very minor ways. Other than an opening scene in Vietnam, the cinematography feels pretty lifeless throughout, and there are a number of scenes where the dialogue doesn't feel as snappy as it should, or a shot feels like it's been held for just a beat too long. It's here that Spielberg's "one big, one small" approach to filmmaking seems to work against him - I can't help but feel that these issues, minor as they might be, wouldn't exist if The Post hadn't been shot, edited and released all while he was still working on post-production for the upcoming Ready Player One. Given the time and attention that it deserved, The Post could've been a genuinely great movie rather than just a very good one - and that's a shame.

But it's also ultimately the worst thing I can find to say about The Post. Even with it feeling as if it were put together in a bit of a hurry, it still easily manages to hit every emotional beat it sets its sights on, and the result is still an engaging, timely and downright important piece of cinema all the same, one that you can't help but get wrapped up in and absorbed by as it progresses. Perfect? No. Spielberg at his best? Again, no. But even as the weakest film in that aforementioned "important events in American history" trilogy, lacking the tension of Bridge of Spies or the sheer craftsmanship behind Lincoln, The Post is still nothing less than an incredibly solid movie that once again proves Spielberg to be one of the most accomplished directors of... well, ever.

4 stars

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