There’s a scene in The Post where Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), publisher of the Washington Post, is sitting at home with her daughter. It’s a moment of quiet, and a brief respite from the chaos unfolding in Graham’s life. Her editor-in-chief, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), is pushing to publish a story based on the Pentagon Papers, an action that has been deemed illegal by a federal judge. The details in the story are of deep public interest, but if she chooses to publish, Graham could go to jail.
In this moment, Graham reminisces on a note her daughter gave her after Graham’s husband, the former publisher of the paper, passed away. Graham is missing her reading glasses, though, and can’t read the note herself. She turns to her daughter and asks: “Would you read it to me?”
It’s a scene that neatly summarizes The Post’s key pitfall. Over and over in the film, director Steven Spielberg exhibits a complete inability to tell this story without explicitly spelling out its context and significance. It’s enough to have a conversation about the note; I don’t need it to be read to me.
The film opens with a messy battle scene that’s supposed to tell us that the Vietnam War is unwinnable. Um, yeah, that’s what the Pentagon Papers are about. The New York Times soon publishes the papers, much to Bradlee’s chagrin, but is swiftly blocked by a federal judge from further publishing. So when whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg (an underused Matthew Rhys) delivers the papers to the Post, Graham, Bradley, and a gaggle of Post investors and reporters quarrel about whether to publish.
This debate is the meat of the film, and The Post is thus much less about the mechanics of reporting than the 2015 Best Picture Winner, Spotlight. Instead, the film concerns itself with the importance of the First Amendment in the face of an authoritarian White House, a fact Steven Spielberg would like to remind you is relevant today. The film is rife with speeches about how the decision to publish is really about the sanctity of free speech.
These monologues were not necessary in Spotlight, because we didn’t need to be told: we saw the reporting in action, and what it meant to the community for that story to be exposed. In The Post, on the other hand, the ordeal is capped off by a reporter reading aloud the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the publication, a decision reveling in the Founding Fathers' devotion to a free press. The film closes on a Watergate break-in scene, as if Spielberg thinks the audience isn’t bright enough to remember that, too.
The film’s other central focus is on Graham’s resilience as a woman in a workplace dominated by men. Streep is, of course, very good, and there are some very effective scenes to this end: Streep’s inability to get a word in during a board meeting, for example, or the shots showing a sea of female secretaries as Graham walks into an executive room full of men. These shots would have been enough.
But again, Spielberg insists on annunciating her struggle. At the Supreme Court near the end of the film, a young female law clerk who works for the government admits that she hopes Graham wins the case, to stick it to the boys. A quiet glance of adoration could have easily done the trick.
Moreover, for a film ostensibly about a woman standing up for herself against domineering men in the workplace, there are quite a lot of scenes where men tell Graham what her opinion is. Save a small retort to a board member (Bradley Whitford) near the end of the film, most of Graham’s transformation comes at the instruction of the men around her. Hanks almost certainly has more screen time than Streep, and the lack of agency that Spielberg gives Graham is supremely disappointing.
The film isn’t a complete miss. Spielberg is still a master of suspense, and few directors could have made the publication of a newspaper as exhilarating as he does here. The cast is good, if a little too crowded. There’s simply not enough screen time for the side characters; I could have used a lot more of Bob Odenkirk’s exceptional turn as Post reporter Ben Bagdikan.
Whatever filmmaking magic Spielberg brings to the screen, though, is not enough to overcome the sense that the director underestimates the intelligence of his audience. Get Out, my favorite film of 2017, worked because the entire film operated on subtext. The Post, meanwhile, never hesitates to tell us exactly what it means.