FILM REVIEW: "The Post" is some chopped and seasoned Oscar Bait - but I'll bite

FILM REVIEW: "The Post" is some chopped and seasoned Oscar Bait - but I'll bite

The Post is a brisk, empathetic tour of old-school, "get your hands dirty" journalism. Steven Spielberg is a storytelling wizard who can take almost any subject matter – theme park dinosaurs, a relentless shark, ordinary WWII soldiers – and weave a humanistic narrative with such deftness and economy, that he'll transform the most cynical grouch into a wide-eyed kid waiting with bated breath to hear how the next event will unfold. The Post, mired in the unglamorous labour of serious political reporting, is no different.

The Post focuses on the real-life story of the Pentagon Papers, which were classified documents detailing the decades-long extent of America's involvement in the Vietnam War. The documents were so damning, so criminal, that the Nixon administration did everything in its considerable power to suppress the story, going so far as to assault the press by filing injunctions. Incidentally, President Richard Nixon is only glimpsed here as a lonely silhouette barking orders at his minions, a craven and evil king from a fairy tale. It is perhaps the one fanciful flourish in The Post.

The Post is anchored by two figures, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and Washington Post owner Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep). Hanks is his usual embodiment of honour and integrity, though this time there's a little bit of a hungry hustler in him, as he's desperate for one good story to propel his small-town paper into the big leagues. Katharine, chronically insecure and under-estimated, has to keep her newspaper business profitable and serious in its function as a watchdog – a seemingly mutually exclusive concept when the press and the government have hitherto made for comfortable bedfellows. When they get their hands on the Pentagon Papers, the scoop for which The New York Times is in a huge amount of legal trouble for, the dilemma is whether to withhold the story and continue to go nowhere, or publish and face financial ruin and serve time.

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Hanks and Streep are a pleasure to watch, though neither stray too far from their usual mode of carefully modulated believability. Jesse Plemons, Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood, and David Cross round out the cast and lighten up the serious-minded endeavour with vibrancy and humour. As it takes place mostly over a period of two weeks, we don't get to know any one character outside of their function in the plot, but it's all so well-cast and balanced that it scarcely matters.

It being a historical drama aside, there's never much doubt as to what will happen – which is something of a problem for a story that moves and behaves like a thriller – but Spielberg is of such a calibre that he manages to sweep you away in the moment, guiding you from one point of view to the next with a steady, disciplined hand. And the journalistic process –following leads and information breadcrumbs, hitting dead ends, minor victories and defeats, making the deadline down to the last minute – is realised with such pleasing vivacity.  The period-specific attention to detail is also something to behold; it sure doesn't look like a wonderland, but it's transportive and slightly fantastical in its own way. 

Certainly there are actorly scenes which are plainly engineered to be award show clips, and there are one or two speeches that less resemble anything a person would say and more resemble a writer's passionate tribute to lofty ideals. But these indulgences are rare, because The Post succeeds as an unpretentious, cracking and enjoyable film.

4 out of 5 newspapers

FILM REVIEW: "The Party" is a stagey but darkly funny chamber piece

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