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The Post

Year: 2017
Production Co: Amblin Entertainment
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods

Steven Spielberg might be the director we've seen grow and change (and whose artistic tastes have changed for all to see) more than any other, or maybe it's because he's just the most commercially visible director working today.

His next film after The Post will be Ready Player One, which will be the very definition of meta, a return to the kind of films he used to make in the 80s adapted from a book that was written very much in response to a love of the kind of films he used to make in the 80s.

But The Post is more the kind of movie Spielberg has been interested in for the last few decades, a story about the American (in some cases Jewish) experience of a political or social event like Bridge of Spies, War Horse, Lincoln or Munich.

Like Bridge of Spies, The Post is about people talking in rooms, making you wonder if it's worthy but dry, like Lincoln was. Instead, while most of the power is in the performances and the script, Spielberg does something quite special with the staging. There are some scenes of genuinely inventive camerawork (like when the viewpoint whirls slowly around the ceiling of a room, pointing down and towards the centre where Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham is on the phone making a pivotal decision), but throughout the whole movie there's a real sense of choreography that gives it an urgent pace and stops it being a mere stageplay on film.

The camera follows people along as they hurry down corridors, switching POV into another room or diving into a passing conversation in a way that makes it feel like you're in the Post newsroom (or the erstwhile newsroom set up in the Bradlee household later on) right along with the chaos of yelling voices and rushing people.

It's a good way of keeping himself in the frame as a director – actors of the calibre that frequently line up behind Spielberg are in some cases so good they can overshadow him, especially in a project that doesn't rely on visual thrills or special effects (watch for the total opposite approach in Ready Player One).

It's the story of the Washington Post's publication of the Pentagon Papers, a top secret report by Department of Defence insiders that condemned the Vietnam War as unwinnable. Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks - the same character played in All the Presidents Men by Jason Robards) is gruff, no-nonsense and good at his job, and publisher Katherine Graham (Streep), who inherited the business and finds herself at times out of her depth, knows better than to tell Bradlee what or who to write about.

When The New York Times publishes a story about the existence of the report, Bradlee knows he has to get his hands on it to make The Post the paper of record he knows it can be. It couldn't come at a worse time for Graham, however. Not only is she close friends with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood, in another 'elder statesman'-type role that he's carving a real niche in), whose career will be torpedoed when it gets out that the Nixon government knows what a lost cause Vietnam is, she's trying to navigate a deal to keep the whole company solvent.

And after Nixon and his legal hit squad have gone after The Times for their reporting on the Pentagon Papers, Graham and her coterie of advisors know very well that jittery banks and investors will run for the hills if the Post is likewise threatened. It puts a very human face on the tense relationship between uncovering the truth and paying the bills journalism has always faced, and the subtext couldn't be more relevant today. After movies like Spotlight and the documentary Nobody Speak have asked quite overtly about the place of the Fourth Estate in society, The Post does the same.

But Spielberg isn't an allegorist – he's telling the very living and breathing story of how the script thinks it went down, and the result is as dramatic and urgent as any thriller. New scriptwriter Liz Hannah (with a rewrite/polish by Spotlight writer Josh Singer) doesn't resort to grand gesture or sweeping profundity – it's the actions and conflict between the characters that makes any statement about the need for an independent press.

The most obvious example of it is by Streep, as masterful over her performance as the poised but unsure Graham as she is in any film. When the powerful men at various important boardroom meetings talk over her or fail to take her opinion seriously, Streep doesn't resort to cheap wish fulfilment by standing up, stomping her stiletto on the table and demanding to be heard, she behaves how a woman in business probably did in the early 70s (to say nothing of being in character).

When she has to make the most important decision of the movie – the one with the slowly wheeling camera, where she must either agree with Bradlee's wish to publish the report or make their potential investors happy by spiking it – it isn't with a speech about freedom or even a steely gaze. Streep stammers, repeating 'lets go' several times over as if trying to convince herself, trying to mask the terror that she's not doing the right thing at all by telling the truth but destroying her family's legacy and losing everybody's job for them. The score by frequent Spielberg collaborator John Williams is similarly low key, free of pronouncements in the form of rousing musical cues.

Longtime DP Janusz Kaminski is at his Janusz Kaminskiest, the whole film shot in the same soft but chilly tones as Bridge of Spies, with an almost 40s-era soft focus lens, diffusing bright lights into haloes and making the precise period detail look like it was shot in the era it's depicting.

If you need another movie reminding you how important the media is then The Post is it, but if you just want to watch modern masters of the cinematic arts effortlessly do their thing, Hanks, Streep, Spielberg and a rousing support cast don't disappoint.

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