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Review: The Post (2018) 'Spielberg at his finest with biopic led by dynamic team of Streep and Hanks'

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Joseph Friar

By Joseph Friar
Jan. 10, 2018 at 1:53 p.m.



Review: THE POST (2018)

Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Bob Odenkirk, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, Jessie Mueller, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Carrie Coon, Zach Woods.  Directed by Steven Spielberg 

“The Post” is Steven Spielberg at his finest.  The director delivers a first-rate thriller about the 1971 Pentagon Papers leak that challenged the freedom of the press under the First Amendment.  The biopic which features Tom Hanks as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as his boss, publisher Katharine Graham, demonstrates the pivotal role the country’s first female publisher played in the newspaper’s fight to take on the Nixon administration which had been lying to the American people about the Vietnam war.  

The film opens in the jungles of Vietnam where we find military research analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), an employee of the RAND Corporation, at his typewriter in a base camp surrounded by American troops fighting a war that our government knew we were losing.  On the plane ride back to the states he’s asked to give an opinion about the conflict by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). It’s obvious that McNamara knows how badly we are losing the war yet on the tarmac he tells the press a different story filled with lies about how the United States is winning the battle.  Like Edward Snowden, a feeling of patriotism overcomes Ellsberg and he is compelled to expose the government by releasing Top Secret documents known as the Pentagon Papers to the press. 

The New York Times is the first recipient of the classified information handed to reporter Neil Sheehan by Ellsberg.  The newspaper begins publishing excerpts from the 47-volume study but is quickly slapped with an injunction under the order of President Nixon to cease publication. That’s where The Washington Post comes in and Spielberg’s film really gets going. 

“The Post” effectively shows the tenacious competition between the rival newspapers as Post editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) pushes his reporters to find the source for The Times’ story.  Bob Odenkirk is fantastic as reporter Ben Bagdikian who traces down leads to get his hands on the confidential files which puts The Post in a position to defy The White House and scoop the New York Times by publishing more of the top-secret journals.  This of course puts the newspaper’s legal team in a tizzy and publisher Katherine Graham (Streep) in an awkward situation.  If she defies the judge’s New York Times ruling and goes against the advice of the newspaper’s board and lawyers not to publish she could put the newspaper in jeopardy at a time when it’s about to go public on the New York Stock Exchange.  Not to mention possible jail time if she’s found in contempt of the court’s injunction.    

Streep, who closely resembles Graham, and Hanks who doesn’t look like Bradlee but captures his character’s persona, are great together as Spielberg showcases the close working relationship the two had even though they didn’t always see eye to eye.  Bradlee pushes Graham to publish the sensitive documents while accusing her of trying to protect close friend Bob McNamara who is at the center of the controversy, while Graham calls out Bradlee for his close relationship with John F. Kennedy.  Tracy Letts is part of the solid supporting cast as Graham’s good friend and personal advisor Fritz Bebe. Like Bradlee, he didn’t always agree with Graham’s decisions, but he had the utmost respect for her as a friend and publisher of the paper.   

With all this talk of “fake news” at a time when the press seems under fire, “The Post” comes at just the right moment to remind audiences on the important role the media plays on keeping the government in check.  The is also timely as it comes during a movement where women are finally getting the respect they are long overdue after struggling through years of workplace abuse in a dominating male environment.  Streep, in another Oscar-worthy performance, demonstrates the struggles Graham faced by jeopardizing her family’s newspaper legacy while dealing with antagonist men to stand up for justice and uphold the principles carried out by her father and husband as former publishers of The Washington Post.  Spielberg’s film is the last chapter in a trifecta of dynamic films based on journalists.  The first being 1976’s “All the President’s Men,” followed by 2015’s “Spotlight.”  You can also think of “The Post” as a precursor to “President’s Men” as the events take place right before Woodward and Bernstein exposed the Watergate scandal as Post reporters. 

At 71, Spielberg continues to demonstrate his ability to captivate audiences with exceptional filmmaking.  He knows how to tell a story.  Frequent collaborators, composer John Williams and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, help the director place his familiar stamp on “The Post” by capturing the tone of Spielberg’s former films.   There are no great white sharks here but there is a scene in which Streep and Hanks stroll through the printing press room while making small talk, a sigh of relief in their voices, that is reminiscent of the closing scene in “Jaws” as Hooper and Brody swim away on a raft as the score by John Williams begins to seep into the background.  43 years later Spielberg remains a compelling filmmaker who can create the same kind of tension in a battle for the First Amendment as he did battling a great white shark on the ocean. 

(4 stars) 

Opens January 12 in theaters nationwide.          

 

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