By Dorian Grayson
Do you want to see Meryl Streep telling off men trying to control her while draped in a glorious gold robe before going off to bed? Do I have a movie for you.
“The Post” went into wide release a couple weeks ago, to tell more about the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, a report about the history of America’s involvement in Vietnam. It detailed how each successive administration lied to the American public about the Vietnam War. The movie centers around the struggle between a newspaper currying favor with the government and a free press. At its most simple, “The Post” is about The Washington Post’s decision to publish reporting on the Pentagon Papers after The New York Times was banned from publication or not.
I expected to find this awards-darling film in an arthouse, like Salem Cinema, with “Lady Bird” and “The Shape of Water.” Instead, it’s a widely available crowd pleaser despite being a major Oscar contender. This probably has much to do with Steven Spielberg’s unique place in modern popular culture.
Spielberg was of the same group early film school alumni as George Lucas: “brats” who learned how to make films from films. This second-generation of filmmakers transformed the medium by combining the highbrow and lowbrow. Critics at the time bemoaned them for being too indulgent of “lesser” storytelling. Lucas combined the lowbrow science fiction serials, like “Flash Gordon,” with the highbrow storytelling of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth to create “Star Wars,” the herald of the new era of blockbuster.
Spielberg was key in this movement, both with Lucas — “Indiana Jones” — and without Lucas — “Jaws,” “AI,” “ET,” etc. He was a troublemaker, “watering down” the “seriousness of cinema” by combining it with the lowbrow. His cinematography was largely traditional, but was used to tell nontraditional stories.
In this day and age, this combination makes Spielberg more traditional than his modern counterparts, but still an accepted part of the popular catalog. “The Post,” among other Spielberg films, gets away with being more highbrow through the cultivated popularity and mass appeal of the themes of the story.
“The Post” also relies on the similar public caches of Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep: serious and highbrow, but popular. It tells a drama mostly based around people talking in rooms, but never feels too dull for general audiences. Spielberg’s camera moves through scenes and reflecting the character emotion of the scene. The plot is about people talking. The story is about people fighting for the ideals and spirit of a country.
“The Post,” though a historical drama, is a fully modern movie. It’s about the Trump Administration in the same way “The Crucible” is about the McCarthy Red Scare. President Nixon’s face is never shown. He is only shot from behind, framed by the windows of the Oval office. His dialogue is all taken directly from the tapes of Nixon’s actual phone conversations. Nixon is an omnipresent force throughout the narrative, but only expresses himself through shouting angrily into a phone. Sound familiar? “The Post” is explicitly a movie advocating for a free press against government pressure. In other words, the Pentagon Papers weren’t fake news.
The whole cast and crew pull this off brilliantly. Sets and costumes place us in the past without dating the movie as a period oddity. Hanks and Streep are as fantastic as ever. Bob Odenkirk and Matthew Rhys give supporting performances so sharply conceived and nuanced that they both must have their eyes on Oscar gold.
If you’re looking for a story that doesn’t sacrifice enjoyment for importance, that will fill your heart with hope for the power the people can hold over megalomaniacal governments, you want to watch “The Post.”