I unreservedly loved The Post. I was smiling by the end, feeling good: about journalism, about freedom, about doing what is right. The acting in the film is impeccable, the directing is assured and the film is well written and well paced.
Meryl Streep is, as expected, fantastic as Katharine Graham, but of course, not knowing much about Graham before watching the film it’s difficult to make this assertion. The fact is, Streep is the centrepiece of a fantastic cast. This should be a point in favour of the film, but in this case it isn’t. Streep is head and shoulders above everyone else, meaning when she is on scene you hardly pay attention to anyone else. In the first scene with her and Tom Hanks, when they’re having breakfast before she’s due to have a meeting with investors, I couldn’t take my eyes of her. Tom Hanks didn’t matter, his character didn’t matter, his character’s opinions, job, life, didn’t matter. All I cared about was Meryl Streep, and in a film that’s supposed to be as much about anything else as it is about the relationship between Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee you would have thought that a scene with both of them in it would be less centred on her. It also doesn’t help, later on in the film, when there are scenes where you can almost see how much Tom Hank is enjoying Streep’s performance, and how much all of the actors are enjoying themselves. This isn’t to say that actors shouldn’t enjoy themselves when they’re working, particularly in a film as gratifying as this, but when the audience can see it, it can take one out of the film. The endless parade of famous faces (Alison Brie, Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys, Bruce Greenwood, Jesse Plemons, just to name a few) doesn’t help this point and it makes their characters less believable. There is a moment in the film where Katharine Graham is picking up the phone at her home, and in two sequential takes we see Katharine Graham’s personal assistant Liz Hylton (played by Jennifer Dundas) and Ben Bradlee’s secretary Debbie Regan (played by Deirdre Lovejoy), both taking charge and being fantastic at their jobs. It’s a fantastic moment. It also felt utterly unbelievable because all I could think was ‘wow, these secondaries are great’.
The film is distinctly a Spielberg film. He uses his directorial experience in his favour, and makes a fantastic end-product, but the speed at which the film was made (less than a year) can be felt in how he falls back into tropes he uses in other films, and how easy it is for him to use them. In many cases this is to the advantage of the film, but it sacrifices directorial creativity in favour of familiarity for the audience. This film, which is about journalism and doing what is right, which could hold some moral grey areas about publishing top secret documents, which could use a moral conflict, ends up being about goodies (the journalists) and baddies (the politicians); and the conflict is transferred to the pressures of publishing versus the pressures of investors. This is a mistake, because the fact is that any self-respecting journalist would have published when The New York Times was told they couldn’t, unless they truly thought that publishing could harm the nation. This is mentioned in the film but not explored in enough depth to make it the central conflict, which would have made for a more powerful film, in my opinion. In the film, the decision to publish is a financially and personally brave decision, but not a moral decision. Morally, publishing is the least The Washington Post could do.
There are other avenues that the film could have explored but only hinted at. The fact that Katharine Graham is often the only woman in the room (she was the only woman publisher of a major newspaper at the time) is shown beautifully in two opposing scenes: at the beginning when she is climbing up the stairs to the New York stock exchange and before the doors are opened she is surrounded by secretaries and other women looking at her in admiration, and once she gets up those stairs and the doors open, the room beyond is full of men, and at the end, when she does the opposite journey: climbing down the stairs of the Supreme Court, where she was surrounded by men, into a crowd of hippie women who again look at her admiringly, as the press ignores her. The relationship between newspapers and politicians at the time is also mentioned, but almost only in passing.
I loved The Post because it made me happy. It made me happy to see a well-made, well-directed, well-acted film. But upon analysis I feel like it’s one of several films that could have been made using the same premise, and perhaps The Post is the least interesting, and the least powerful of these.