SPOILER ALERT: I will discuss elements of the movie's characters and plot, so you will want to see the film before reading this review. Also, no matter what I have to say about a film, I always encourage people to go see films for themselves and make their own conclusions.
I remember when I first found out that Steven Spielberg was making a movie about the Pentagon Papers with an all-star ensemble cast that included Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Instantly, this movie became one of my most-anticipated of Oscar season. That anticipation continued to build throughout December until I was finally able to watch it after the calendar turned to a new year.
I will contend at the outset of this review that such levels of personal hype may be impossible for a movie to overcome on an initial viewing. Maybe I came in with unattainable expectations. But after that initial viewing, I couldn't shake a feeling of slight disappointment.
That is not to say that this is a bad film. On the contrary, it is a good film. I think, with the level of talent that is put together here, it would be nearly impossible for a bad film to emerge. I'll discuss my issues with the film later, but none of them are enough to erase the fact that Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep once again, Steven Spielberg directs with aplomb and Tom Hanks gives a fine performance. Add onto that another fine score from John Williams and a stellar supporting cast, and there is always someone to pick the film back up after it falters a bit.
Many of those slip-ups come from a script which I found to be often on-the-nose. The screenplay was co-written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (Singer also co-wrote Spotlight). I believe in the ideals that are espoused in the film - freedom of the press, speaking truth to power, etc. - but I never felt that they were quite handled perfectly. I mean, how many times do we need characters to re-tell us the stakes? We get it. Show us instead of repeatedly telling us.
The other major problem I have with the script is that the most powerful story - Graham (Streep) making the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in the face of pervasive sexism, not to mention the prospects of losing her job and going to jail - gets lost a bit in the midst of the story about The Washington Post. Again, I believe that our press is vital to our democracy. That is a powerful story here. But I don't think it's the main one. I mean, the New York Times was the first to publish. To me, if you want to focus on the freedom of the press as the main story, the focus should have gone there. In this story, I thought even more should be made of Graham.
Having said that, the film does depict a fantastic story. The Pentagon Papers captivated the country, and the resulting battle between the administration and two of the country's largest newspapers bears many similarities to what we are seeing in today's headlines. The movie draws those throughlines well - even if it makes sure to emphatically underline them even after we've gotten the point.
It is impossible for me to keep from comparing this film to Spotlight - the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture just a few short years ago. That film did a far better job of showing us the stakes instead of telling them to us. We repeatedly see interviews with victims and we can see the pain on their faces and hear it in their voices. It is heartbreaking, and it is far more impactful than simply having the reporters tell us about the abuses.
The Post does show us the lies of the Nixon administration at the outset of the film. We see a war scene in Vietnam, and then we watch as Daniel Ellsburg comes home and sees the public lies of Robert McNamara after hearing firsthand his private feelings about the war. There needed to be more of that in the film.
While I do admit that Tom Hanks gives a fine performance, I also just couldn't ever really connect with him in this role. He feels slightly miscast. Again, it is impossible to avoid comparison to the other famous portrayal of Ben Bradlee - Jason Robards in his Oscar-winning turn in All the President's Men. Robards was much more believable as world-weary journalist. Hanks, despite his best efforts, just can't shake his lovable everyman persona.
This film was notoriously fast-tracked by Spielberg in light of our current political climate. Personally, I wonder if the film's significance would have been lessened at all had it come out next year. Who's to say? But there's just something missing from this film despite its incredible compilation of talent.
It is true that our press is under fire today. Our democracy needs a free press, and this film does bring that to light. It is an important message. And it is told by an incredible cast. For those two reasons alone, The Post is a film worth seeing even if it leaves something to be desired.
Note on content: The film contains a fair amount of profanity, and there are a few scenes of war violence. The film is rated PG-13 and should be appropriate for most viewers.