Steven Spielberg’s latest offering The Post is certainly a Very Relevant Movie, and it takes a few too many pains to inform audiences just how relevant. It’s easy to see why, as many of its themes, such as, say, a newspaper struggling to stay afloat while holding the powerful accountable in the face of a secretive, malicious presidential administration obsessed with destroying anyone it perceives to be an enemy, ring uncomfortably true today.
Rather than the far more famous Watergate scandal that rocked America and in which the Washington Post also played a major part, the film focuses on the Pentagon Papers, and the relationship between the paper’s editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and the first ever female publisher of a major newspaper, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep). This also marks the first time that Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep have collaborated on a film, and it’s worth the price of admission to watch these giants work off each other and give some of the best performances of their careers.
Streep in particular is a portrait of restrained power as Graham. She is constantly the lone woman in a sea of white male faces, and she clearly needs to Lean In in order to be taken seriously, rather than constantly dismissed. But stepping up is hard to do when you’ve been trained all your life to step aside, especially when you have no other female colleagues or mentors. The result is Graham barely feeling like she has any real power at a company that is both founded and funded by her family.
However, major decisions must be made when The New York Times publishes The Pentagon Papers, leaving The Washington Post scrambling to not only catch up, but unmask the full extent of a cover-up that goes back decades. Their decision to publish their findings will mean confronting not only a White House that will do whatever it takes to silence them, but also themselves, and how their friendships with those in power led to a failure on their parts to speak truth to it.
Graham’s leadership will help change history, and her gradual awakening to her role and how to use the power she has been given makes The Post one of Spielberg’s most feminist films. Such a female-centric perspective means the personal is jarringly shown next to the political, with family life and children innocently going on alongside adults hell-bent on doing the hard work of combing through years of documents to bring government secrets to light.
Nixon of course looms large over all, even if he is heard more than seen. It’s of course another dark homage to our current times, but just how relevant is it? Much like Streep’s Graham, it’s supposed to be a commentary of just how much of our country has stayed the same even as things are said to have changed, but Nixon’s actions almost feel wholesome compared to those of George W. Bush, and especially to Trump. Nixon’s nemesis Hunter Thompson even said he would happily vote for him over Bush, so can we really say the period under discussion is really so parallel to our own?
Spielberg obviously thinks so, and this belief hampers a film that is for the most part a great tribute to journalists not only committed to doing their jobs at great risk, but the institutions that make their work possible. However, there’s also a certain lack of insight to the fact that the waters we’re in now are very much uncharted. The age of dark government conspiracies are mostly over; those in power aren’t sneaking around anymore. They’re not only committing their crimes right out in the open, they’re doing so with the full support of some of the ugliest elements of the American character. One of Spielberg’s more recent historical dramas, Lincoln, was a far smarter, insightful, even suspenseful look at another American fight for justice that was also depressingly relevant to our times. Because it is also our willingness to give in to fear and prejudice that allowed it to come to this. The Post deserves praise for exposing hard truths, but they should take note: our leaders are not the only ones who need to be held accountable in our darkest hours.