Somebody get Steven Spielberg a bag of ice, because his hand is sore from patting himself on the back too much with “The Post.” This pristine-looking but dour-feeling film has all the emotional complexity of a shoddy, self-help column. What a shame that this movie, about reluctant people taking immeasurable risks, can’t find the room for any risks of its own in its wide, cinematic margins.
Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep star as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and its publisher Kay Graham, respectively. After rival paper The New York Times is given a court order not to publish a story about a coverup of the Vietnam war, Bradlee and Graham wrangle with the moral and ethical dilemmas of if the Post can publish that story, but more importantly, if the Post should.
Bradlee is an entertaining character but a hollow one. He feels less like a human and more of an over-idealized embodiment of what every journalist’s favorite editor would look like. Bradlee always knows the right thing to say, the proper thing to do with apparently no flaws or fractures in his character whatsoever. We aren’t watching Tom Hanks transform into Ben Bradlee. Rather, we’re witnessing the idea of Ben Bradlee be edited to meet Tom Hanks’ wardrobe specifications.
For every moral dilemma that Bradlee lacks, Graham makes up for two-fold. She is a graceful and soft-spirited, with more friends than she can count and few bad words that could be said about her. But that’s because Graham is subservient, still holding a role of power but being exploited by the men who want that power most. She feels allegiance to close friends, to her family and husband’s legacy, to women in less powerful roles, to her employees and shareholders, where she can’t make a decision that won’t make someone who looks up to her now look down on her instead.
It’s through that dilemma, of choosing to make an easy but unrewarding decision vs. trudging down the harder path with no assurance of coming out clean on the other side, that “The Post” crafts its most invigorating moments. No particular character in “The Post” is the bad guy, and the arguments made by Bradlee and Graham’s opposers are actually pretty sound. For a while, the film feels like it is making a worthwhile, decent point: that in the war on truth, the biggest enemies aren’t the politicians or megalomaniacs, but those smaller folk who choose to look the other way instead of speaking up.
But, in its victory lap, “The Post” trips on its own ambition, trying too hard to make the conclusion, and in turn, the whole story about Richard Nixon. Mentions of Nixon had been interspersed throughout the movie, and since “The Post” deals with politics and journalism, it’d be ridiculous not to mention him. But focusing so much of the story back on him so late in the game weakens the rewarding debate about tough choices that carried the film.
It’s a decent film to watch and from a political standpoint, an easy film to make. Nobody is going to walk out of “The Post” without appreciating the courageous efforts of the journalists of that day. Nor should Spielberg feel he can only make films that are controversial or against-the-grain in some way. Still, “The Post,” for its often beautiful cinematography and occasional moments of greatness, isn’t quite fit to print.