Spielberg’s The Post is a Familiar Movie for Familiar Times

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We take Steven Spielberg for granted. He’s a unique sort of underrated, the type of Hollywood workaholic who churns out a masterpiece every two or three years and still doesn’t get the credit he fully deserves. That’s what you get when you direct some of the most seminal, generation-defining works of art of the 20th century: Endless accolades for your old work and a vaguely unfair sense of collective disappointment that you haven’t managed to reach that pinnacle since.

When his career is over (many, many years from now, we should hope), a renewed spotlight is going to be cast on the second act of Spielberg’s career. Obviously the youthful verve of his early work is utterly incredible, but the work he’s done this century is just as impressive in its own, safer way. When you’re Steven Spielberg, your newest movie is always going to be held to the standard of Jaws, fair or not. The upside is that you’re Steven Spielberg. You don’t care what people think. You’re going to read a script about the Washington Post’s 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers, call up Tom and Meryl, and have the movie in theaters literally nine months later.

And on top of all that the movie’s going to be almost unbearably good.

The Post opens in South Vietnam in the late 1960s, with a brief prologue following Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) into the front lines of the Vietnam War. This is the shakiest part of the film; it’s well-shot but almost entirely superfluous, and reads like a child of the 60s realizing he’s running out of time to make his Vietnam movie. Once that questionable prologue is out of the way, the movie finds its footing almost immediately. We cut to Meryl Streep’s Katherine Graham, the publisher of the Post, she meets with Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee, the Post’s editor, and now that the movie has found its footing it starts full-on sprinting.

It’s hard to believe a 70-year-old man made this movie, because it’s almost overwhelmingly energetic. The Post’s camera wheels through the Washington Post newsroom like it’s a Mad Max movie, not a First Amendment Oscar hopeful. Spielberg knows what a newsroom movie looks like, and he wants to make the apotheosis of the genre, something that rings with the freshness of a master’s handiwork even as it relaxes in the trappings of a familiar structure. The movie is a blast, a shot of adrenaline that’s nearly as potent as Dunkirk. In a year that saw the most disappointingly staid version of this type of movie in Darkest Hour, it’s enormously refreshing to see a master like Spielberg reject formula and inject some electricity into a genre known for long debates about the Bill of Rights more than for Birdman-esque* camera stunts.

Of course, there are long debates about the Bill of Rights, as there must be, but they’re delivered by an ensemble that’s staggering even for a Spielberg movie. Acclaimed actors wander into and out of this movie like I wander into and out of Bobst after realizing I’m just doing it out of habit and not because I need to be there. Zach Woods, Jesse Plemons, Sarah Paulson, Carrie Coon, Michael Stuhlbarg, and David Cross all get their scene-stealing moments. Bob Odenkirk and Tracy Letts impeccably chew their way through slightly heftier material. Bradley Whitford is just the right amound of slimy, and Bruce Greenwood kills his big scene as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. If The Post’s cast were just made up of these actors alone, it would be worth it.

But The Post also has, you know, the two most beloved actors in the world on its team. On paper, it seems insane that Spielberg and/or Hanks have never worked with Meryl Streep before. How could that not have happened? It’s such an insanely easy lay-up that you have to imagine it won’t work on at least some level. And of course instead it works on every level. Streep is a Spielberg type on her own, so omnipresent at the Academy Awards that we forget what made her dominate there to begin with: She’s just the fucking best actress there is. The only full-on Spielberg Face “oh shit a dinosaur” moment comes when a group of young women see Meryl Streep, which feels correct. This is her best work in years, a role that allows her to run the gamut of emotion from end to end over and over again until you’re out of breath and the camera is still panning in on Streep giving the performance of the year. Hanks is delightfully gruff, but he’s in full Catch Me If You Can supporting role here: The movie is Streep’s, and she’ll have her way with it.

Much of the ink shed on The Post will be with regard to its timeliness, which is all thanks to the daily dystopian nightmare we find ourselves living in in the year of our lord 2017. (Thanks, daily dystopian nightmare!) And obviously all of that is here, with Nixon bashing the Post and going on personal, childish vendettas against individual reporters. There’s also more nuance than you might think, with Bradlee and Graham individually wrestling with their own personal relationships with people they’ll have to report the truth on. Spielberg doesn’t let his heroes off the hook for their complacency. When the truth about JFK’s Vietnam policies comes out, he sits Hanks’ Bradlee down with the knowledge and has him wrestle with all the blind eyes he turned because of his friendship with the former president. Graham, with her family’s business itself in jeopardy as the full force of the Nixon administration comes down around her, has to grapple with her own friendship with McNamara. In a post-Trump world, it comes across almost as an indictment of the modern media’s failure to adequately report on President Obama’s more scorched-earth foreign policies, leaving an armada in the hands of a madman.

This is more than just “Trump bad, Obama good”; it’s a legitimately absorbing, enormously entertaining portrait of what you win and lose when you tell the truth. It’s a movie that high school juniors will be secretly excited to watch in American history class, and one that we can be sure the President will tweet disparagingly about once it wins all of those Oscars next March. Spielberg’s career is alive and well, and maybe even better than ever.

*The Post is much better than Birdman. Birdman sucks.