I had sat down to watch the post with a degree of cynicism. It is Oscar time and we are to be exposed to a stream of ‘worthy’ cinema, as it courts awards approval. The film is much billed as Streep-Hanks, a coming together of two great acts; much like the film Heat brought together the talents of De Niro and Pacino, this is a film which pitches itself on the less explosive, but no less compelling talents of Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. Such was the publicity’s focus on its two leads, that the film’s director seemed more incidental. I hadn’t much considered that this was a Spielberg production, hadn’t considered it at least until the film was rolling.
The film opens on US soldiers readying themselves for engagement in the Vietnam war. As the soldiers darken their faces with camouflage paints, the camera moves with bold assurance; it’s dynamic, it’s confident, it’s assertive, it struck me as extremely proficient film making – but of course it is, it’s directed by the man who shot the D-Day landings in Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg manages to perfectly distil the essence of a military engagement in sixties Vietnam, it does a lot in a short space of time with an economy of movement. This is not an indulgent film on Spielberg’s part; it’s his restraint that is impressive.
The film tells the story of the Washington Post’s stand against the Nixon administration in publishing classified information on the Vietnam War. Streep plays the publisher and owner of the Washington Post, Katharine Graham; Hanks plays the Editor in Chief, Ben Bradlee.
Spielberg has a wonderful, seemingly effortless, way of expressing the presence of other characters with separate narratives within his stories. Bradlee wants to keep his story low key before publication, lest anyone get wind of what the Washington Post are working on. He therefore arranges for a close cadre of journalists and legal advisors to meet him at his house, which fast turns into a makeshift newsroom. It so happens that on this day Bradlee’s daughter has decided to set up a lemonade stand. Throughout the ensuing narrative, Bradlee’s daughter is quietly peddling lemonade to a stressed and harangued press core. It is an inspired touch of humanity, which Spielberg brings to the narrative with frequency and subtlety.
The Post is not a heavy-handed work. It is understated, both on the part of director and his two leads. While the film is billed as a meeting of two great acting talents, the performances are considered rather than large. Streep in particular inhabits the role of Graham with great aplomb. While Bradlee, and just about every other man in Graham’s life, is strident, Graham is beset by a lack of confidence in her position, which comes from the inequality of the time. Though handled delicately, Streep’s performance conveys a woman of considerable social stature in a position of power, but still struggling with a sense of inadequacy when dealing with the men under her position. Streep’s portrayal of Graham’s uncertainty is such that it serves as plot device, as the pressure builds and we fear she lacks resolve.
The Post does not force its message, though clearly it is not coincidental in its timing. It is a reminder of the function that the press serve in holding politicians to account. It lives up to its ‘worthy’ award seeking status, but does so with the gentle ease of three highly competent talents.