One of the more interesting and not talked about enough aspects of Steven Spielberg’s vast filmography is how political his films became in the 21st century. There was suddenly an anger in his work that hadn’t always been there. It’s been a refreshing pivot for the historic filmmaker, causing him to dig deeper work with a fervor few directors his age can retain. Munich was a response to the war on terror and a work contemplating what it means to take revenge after an attack. His War of the Worlds remake still has the best appropriation of 9/11 imagery and post-9/11 fears. Lincoln was about the necessity of compromise for progress. And now we have The Post, his most political work to date. It’s a necessary, urgent and driven film that – given it was filmed only earlier this year – has the argument of being the first post-Trump film in direct response to his presidency.
When the Pentagon Papers are leaked that exposed a decades long cover-up about our government’s intentions and knowledge in Vietnam, a battle between the government and the free press is ignited. President Nixon orders the New York Times and the Washington Post – run by the first female newspaper publisher, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) – to cease publication of the documents and takes them to court over it. The thrust of the movie revolves around the relationship between Graham and her firebrand editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) as they weigh the physical cost of losing their paper vs. the moral cost of not publishing these documents.
Spielberg, at this point in his career, almost makes it look easy. He just knows exactly where to put the camera. With his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, they film these scenes in the most engaging way possible with long unbroken takes that whirl around interiors and obtuse angles to highlight the power relationship between characters. They’re never just shooting coverage and calling it good, they always seem to ask what the most exhilarating way to shoot each scene is and rely on those takes. It could have been a tonal disaster in less experienced hands, but Spielberg just knows exactly what to do scene to scene like he’s had the movie cut in his head for months. These are the things one like him is capable of knowing after all these years. The fact that he filmed it just months ago contributes to the forward pace of the film, only somebody as experienced as Spielberg could take something like a rush job and use it as fuel – this film had to get made now. My only complaint is that we don’t actually watch the hearings take place, which makes the resolution and impact of them feel a bit undercut, but if that’s the cost to keep the film under 2 hours I’m willing to pay it.
It also helps that he has such a stacked cast. Aside from powerhouses Streep and Hanks, Spielberg also calls upon talents like Bruce Greenwood, Carrie Coon, Matthew Rhys, Bob Odenkirk, Jesse Plemons, Tracy Letts, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sarah Paulson, Pat Healy, Bradley Whitford and Alison Brie. I could keep listing them for several more lines, that’s how expansively talented this cast is, each of them bringing gravitas and authority to their scenes no matter how large or small. Watching them all play off each other so naturally while Spielberg’s camera whirls around them is like watching NBA players in an offseason pickup game, they’re just putting in work. Nobody is trying to outshine the other unless the script calls for it, they’re all just happy to be there and work with each other.
The Post’s political and feminist potency are easy to read – I mean, come on, it’s about a president who wants unfavorable press about him made illegal. Sound familiar? – but it’s the smaller moments that pack the most punch. The images of Kay Graham being the only woman in rooms of power filled with men stick with you. Conversations about how the age of the press and government working together are over sting true. As a man, it’s not up to me to decide what qualifies as feminist and what doesn’t, but goodness gracious I couldn’t help but feel a swell of emotion at the site of Meryl Streep walking down the steps of the Supreme Court while dozens of young women look at her heroically.
Just earlier today as I’m writing this, our shame of a president found a way to stoop even lower with blatantly racist statements about other countries and races. He’s constantly attacking the free press for doing their jobs, and gets on twitter to escalate nuclear war. I’m out of things to say about him because it just feels defeating. It’s just hard to see tomorrow with this guy running things. But we have film, and even one as Oscar-bait-y as The Post is an integral one to watch right now to remind us of hope that the free press and the people possess in fighting and challenging corruption. Art is the ultimate weapon against corruption. We must continue to hold corrupt individuals and institutions accountable, and tomorrow may get easier to see. Thanks, Spielberg.