Set during the pre-Watergate Nixon administration, The Post follows the Washington Post back when it was considered a “local paper”. The New York Times is the paper of record, but the Post is under the control of Kay Graham, whose father left the family publishing empire to her husband, who later died by suicide. That left Kay in charge, a lone woman among grey men in grey rooms in great, grey buildings. Kay is trying to fit in, trying to live up to the legacy of her father and her husband, whom everyone loved. The men surrounding her don’t even pretend to have faith in her as a businesswoman, a publisher, or a leader. And Kay struggles, barely speaking—if at all—in meetings despite extensive preparation, and when she does talk, her voice wibbles and wafts like birdsong. Her hands tremble, she fidgets, she can’t hold eye contact. She is a sparrow among carrion.

But Kay is SMART. She knows her sh*t even if life didn’t prepare her to lead a publishing empire in her middle age. Kay has hired Ben Bradlee, a fiery and dogged newspaperman, serving as her editor in chief, meant to shake up the Post and turn it into more than just a little local paper. Their town is America’s town, after all, shouldn’t they have something to say to the country about that? And Ben Bradlee is determined to do just that, and Kay becomes his surprising ally when the leak of the Pentagon Papers—thousands of pages detailing government malfeasance regarding the Vietnam War—puts the Post in the position of standing up to the Nixon administration, and a president who is already black-balling them after unflattering (read: gossipy) coverage.

Watching The Post, it’s easy to understand why director Steven Spielberg rushed it into production after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. Is it a little on the nose? Yes. Are there a couple scenes that were OBVIOUSLY inserted to meet the moment? Again, yes, and they’re not hard to spot, either. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, The Post would probably be untenably cheesy and melodramatic. But Steven Spielberg is NOT a lesser filmmaker, and he is especially good at calculating how to provoke reaction and inspire audiences, so in his hands, The Post is a cathartic experience, and a kind of wish fulfillment as we watch the fourth estate check the power of the president.

Working with regular collaborators Januz Kaminski (cinematography) and John Williams (score), Spielberg turns in a strong, if slightly under-developed effort. This group is incapable of making a bad movie, but The Post does feel a little undercooked, like it could have used more time firming up the script, particularly around Kay’s character. Tom Hanks stars as Ben Bradlee, and Meryl Streep stars as Kay, and she is doing heavy lifting fleshing out a role not given as much depth as should be allowed. That’s because The Post is torn between two things: one being a biopic of Kay Graham, a groundbreaking female boss, and the other a procedural about the breaking of the Pentagon Papers. 

(Given everyone involved, The Post is an instant Oscar favorite, and is sure to garner lots of nominations, including Best Picture. But it’s not a perfect film, and in a year where early voting has been all over the place, right now the best bet for a sure thing is Meryl Streep for another Best Actress win. It’s redundant to say “Meryl Streep is good”, but she is REALLY good, even by her own excellent standard.)

Screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, who produced Spotlight, get detailed about the process of journalism and how the staff at the Post worked tirelessly to report on the Pentagon Papers, and the first amendment legal battle that ensued, but they skim on character. The cast is loaded with tremendous talent, from Hanks and Streep to Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Carrie Coon, Bradley Whitford, and Bruce Greenwood, and all of them are working at their top level for Spielberg. These are such excellent, seasoned actors, they know how to suggest more character than really exists, and really it’s only the script’s tendency to state the obvious that gives away the weak spots around the human beings in the story. If it just ran as a straight journalism procedural—like Spotlight—you’d never notice the lack of characterization because it wouldn’t matter, they’re not the point. But The Post has a strain of an earlier version that was more specifically about Kay Graham that betrays it.

However, thanks to Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep, The Post works anyway. It’s enormously satisfying to see journalists declare that a president doesn’t get to decide what the news is—people burst into applause—and it’s a vicarious thrill to watch as the fallout begins spreading, and the gears start turning on the mechanisms that would end Nixon’s toxic administration. It provides a ray of hope that, finding ourselves here once again, we can get through it this time, too. The Post is at once reassuring and warning, a reminder that we have survived democracy’s test before, but also a prod to stay alert. Constant vigilance!


(Lainey PS. One of my favourite books of all time is Kay Graham’s Personal History. Sometimes I wonder if Show Your Work started the moment I finished reading it. If you haven’t already, definitely consider it as a gift either for yourself or someone else this holiday season.)


Attached - Meryl at the International Press Freedom Awards last month.