Nothing is more stirring in Steven Spielberg’s The Post than watching the paper get printed. Spielberg’s movie intends to rouse and inspire us, but the printing montage does that work all on its own. We watch the news text printed letter by letter, type placed into trays, trays imprinted onto a plate, and plates pressed onto newsprint. As Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks wax philosophical about the press, copies of the morning papers spiral up to the ceilings, ready to be delivered to homes across Washington. It’s dynamite for publishing and journalism geeks.
The rest of The Post is a handsomely made history lesson that hits every beat you expect. You can feel the immediacy in the air; Spielberg fast-tracked the movie through production as a response to the current administration. The parallels between Nixon and today are so obvious, the movie doesn’t need to highlight them–especially in a week that saw the White House threatening legal action against Henry Holt for the hot new tell-all. But highlight them repeatedly it does.
The Post is far from Spielberg’s most essential work, nor does it match the intensity of All the President’s Men or the moral weight of Spotlight. Still, as it doggedly reminds us how history repeats itself, there are moments that register on a more primal level. The Pentagon Papers reveal that successive presidents have been too afraid to end a war America has no chance of winning; we know it wasn’t the last of its kind. And though the men on screen are clearly having a blast (especially Hanks, a charmer as Ben Bradlee), Katharine Graham is a quietly compelling lead for this story.
Graham inherited ownership of The Washington Post when her husband died, and in the movie, she battles against doubts (including her own) that she’s equipped to steer the paper long-term. Beneath the movie’s rah-rah patriotism is an insightful critique of women occupying positions of power in 1971. Mostly, they didn’t. Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay often isn’t subtle about this, especially in a monologue Sarah Paulson delivers about Graham’s bravery. It’s a speech a better movie might film, then cut last-minute because it’s so overstated.
Spielberg makes these observations more convincingly with his camera, which cunningly observes how women have to create space for themselves at work, at home, even at the Supreme Court. One especially good shot follows Graham as she enters the New York Stock Exchange; she passes through a crowd of female reporters outside the door to enter a room stuffed with homogeneous white men in dark suits. That says plenty.
There’s a subversive joy watching Streep’s subdued performance, giving Graham a voice that’s vulnerable but increasingly assured, amid a sea of talented men broadly acting around her. And the deciding moment when Graham agrees to publish the Pentagon Papers story is surprising. She’s on a call with the major Post leadership, and we see her on the spot, weighing her options, her face registering the repercussions of her decision. Then she quickly sputters, “Let’s go. Let’s publish,” like she has to get it out before changing her mind. One of the most important moments in journalism history, decided just like that, with few words.
You almost expect Streep to say, “That’s all.”