FILM REVIEW – THE POST. With Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts. Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence. 115 minutes.
It may not be polite to mention it but director Steven Spielberg – a master of the cinematic craft – is only as good as the script he’s shooting. When he has “Lincoln” (written by Tony Kushner) or “Bridge of Spies” (co-written by the Coen Brothers), he can use his camera to tell a compelling story. When he has a bland script like the one served up by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer for “The Post,” you end up with a workmanlike film, where not even the star power of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks is enough to compensate.
This is the story of the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam War that the government didn’t want to leak because it revealed the truth of our military misadventure in Southeast Asia. In the movie, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) coordinates his reporters to break the story. Publisher Katherine Graham (Streep), who took over the paper after the suicide of her husband several years earlier, is wary. The paper is about to make a public stock offering and stepping into a controversy that could end up with the paper and personnel held in contempt of court – or worse – might bring the financial deal down before it even starts.
Those old enough to remember or otherwise up on their history might find it odd that they chose to make the Post the focus of the story. It was the New York Times that originally published excerpts from the Papers and they were the ones hauled into court when the Nixon Administration tried to prevent further publication. As is only hinted at here, the leaker – analyst Daniel Ellsberg – started getting copies of other newspapers, including the Post. Making the Post the center of attention would be like making a movie about Watergate where the focus was on Vice President Spiro Agnew.
The movie isn’t so much bad as it is pedestrian. Tom Hanks, certainly one of the finest American actors working today, pretty much plays his standard dramatic turn of “decent-guy-working-to-do-the-right-thing.” Compare his performance here with his previous outing with Spielberg in “Bridge of Spies” and you can see he barely breaks into a sweat here. As for Streep, there aren’t enough superlatives to cover her career (even with the upcoming “Mamma Mia” sequel), and she gets the most interesting arc in the film. She’s part of Washington, D.C. society – former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) is a friend – and she’s not quite sure if she’s really up to the task of being a newspaper publisher, especially given the stakes. The filmmakers might have done better to make this film about her and cover more than the incidents depicted here. (As seen in the film’s coda, the Washington Post would soon be leading the way on a different story, about a break-in at the Watergate complex.)
“The Post” may be getting overpraised because it seems to be in touch with the current revulsion towards more current government lies, but that’s just not enough. Adequate at best, this represents a missed opportunity.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, MA.