A week before taking office, Donald Trump shouted down a CNN reporter and first uttered what was to become his favourite catchphrase – “You are fake news.” Over the next month he waged all out war on the media, culminating in sending out a tweet on February 17, 2017 calling the liberal media (read: every major news outlet besides Fox) “the enemy of the American people.” It sounded like something from the Nixon tapes, but instead of being uttered clandestinely in the Oval Office, this was being screamed at the public at full volume. While I was cowering at my computer wondering how on earth we were going to make it through another three years, eleven months of this, Steven Spielberg was reading a script and preparing to make it into a movie as quickly as humanly possible.
“I could not believe the similarities between today and what happened with the Nixon administration against their avowed enemies The New York Times and The Washington Post,” said Spielberg in a December 5th interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “I realized this was the only year to make this film.” Nine months after first reading the spec script by Liz Hannah, The Post was being screened for the press.
This sense of urgency is very much on the screen; from start to finish The Post feels like a story that NEEDS to be told. The plot of the film in brief: Meryl Streep plays Katherine Graham, a wealthy socialite who was handed the reigns of The Washington Post after the death of her husband. The movie takes place in 1971, after she’s been running the paper for a little under a decade. When we meet her she is struggling to assert herself as head of the company. Her board members, advisors, and top staff are all male, and they frequently talk over her, or act like she’s not there. Enter the Pentagon Papers, a study, prepared by the Department of Defense, of the US’s military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. These highly classified documents detail decades of the government lying to the American people about many facets of the war, from reckless operations to fear of the USA’s worldwide humiliation should they accept defeat.
Daniel Ellsberg, who worked on the study, leaks part of the report to The New York Times, a much more established paper than The Washington Post, and three months later the Times publishes a front page story detailing what the documents expose. They plan to publish a lot more than just one story, but before they can, the Nixon administration hits them with a court injunction, which they abide by and temporarily halt further stories involving the Pentagon Papers. The next day, however, The Washington Post tracks down Ellsberg and obtains thousands of pages of the Papers. It’s now up to Graham to decide whether or not to go against the court and publish.
What continually amazes me about Spielberg (other than how crazy fast he can work – seriously, Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List came out in the SAME year) is his ability to tell a functional story. He has a truly remarkable talent, perhaps more so than any other filmmaker, to present information to an audience in a way that’s both clear and entertaining. There’s a lot going on in this movie, but we always have all the information we need to understand what’s happening and, more importantly, why.
The movie is not subtle in its themes of overcoming sexism in the workplace and the importance of freedom of the press, because this is not the time to be subtle about these things. In a time when a known sexual predator can be elected president, we need all hands on deck. This is a film written by a woman, about a woman, and as much as I love Spielberg, I wish there had been a woman in the director’s chair. Meryl Streep delivers what might be my favourite performance of hers. She sincerely conveys Katherine Graham’s strength and vulnerability, and watching her slowly gain confidence in herself and her abilities as a leader is an inspiration. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, and I lost track of how many times I thought “Oh, it’s that person!” Add in cinematography from Janusz Kamiński, a score by John Williams, and editing by Michael Kahn, and you get a pretty damn polished package that I wish more people were talking about.
We live in frightening times, and it’s easy to feel like everything’s hopeless. Fox News has been the most watched cable news station in the US for 16 years in a row. The wealth gap is higher now than it ever has been. That horrible, horrible man, and his horrible, horrible party are calling the shots, and will be for the next three years (at least). We need more art like The Post – art that helps us see how doing what’s right and good, even when up against terrible power, can lead to real change. It worked for Katherine Graham, it worked for the incredible MeToo movement, and I believe it will keep working. In the immortal words of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial…“Be good.”
P.S. Spielberg shot Raiders of the Lost Ark in 73 days. 73 DAYS. How is that even possible?!