Film Review: ‘The Post’ a series of images and context to drive home message


In comparison to the more glittering celluloid jewels that dotted our country’s movie theaters, Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” initially appears almost muted and medicinal in its moralizing: A drama as much about newspaper publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham as her publication’s own struggle for national legitimacy and exposure, it hammers the need for a free press and checks and balances in our government without care for subtlety or restraint in its dialogue.

Brilliantly, this is where Liz Hannah’s script (with rewrites by “Spotlight” co-writer Josh Singer) works on both a didactic and engaging level: the context surrounding the words are the message — the images that literally swirl with the camera around a character speaking or a frame around a printed page. The subtlety lies in the atmosphere of each scene: layer upon layer of individual and national history, personal and professional relationships, and the difference between being instrumental versus ornamental.

One of the first and most enduring images on screen is a typewriter next to a rifle at a base camp in Vietnam. The typewriter belongs to military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), whose first-hand exposure to the sights, sounds, and feelings of combat in the jungles of southeast Asia put him at odds with the bureaucrats who admittedly stood at a distance from the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who had been sent there since the mid-1940s. When asked about the progress of the war by the Secretary of State, Ellsberg bluntly replies he was “most impressed by how things are the same.”

Disgusted at the disconnect between political doublespeak and its effects on human lives, Ellsberg later gains access at the RAND Corporation to the Vietnam Task Force study, commissioned by Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), to justify military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. It is 1971, and troops are still in Vietnam with no end in sight. He sends a copy of the study to the New York Times.

At the Washington Post, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) is struggling to find her footing as publisher after the suicide of her husband, who had been given control of the paper by Katherine’s late father. The specters of the two men hover over her constantly, in mounted photos in the newsroom and framed pictures in her study and home.

Though Kay admits that she had never held an outside job until her mid-40s, she has been in and of the Post for her entire life, enough so to sense the rumblings of the press through the floor and smell the ink on the plates, see the arrangement of desks in the press room and hear the clacks of the gears. However innate her knowledge of the workings of the paper are or her personal connection to it, Kay still has to deal with men who see her as an ornamental figurehead behind editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) or Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts) or Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford).

Kay does twice as much research in preparation for the paper potentially going public, but her presence at the board-room table is almost hidden behind colleagues and her written words are spoken aloud by Parsons to the buyers who are “skittish about a woman in charge.”

“Kay throws a great party.” So she does, and being the daughter and widow of prominent Washington players, she is an expert at the politics and power plays of both an intimate dinner party or large backyard soiree. Through Meryl, we see her alternate between the carriage and demeanor and voice of Kay, Katherine, Mom, and Mrs. Graham depending on where she is or to whom she is speaking.

Similarly, her closest colleagues know how to temper their arguments by referring to her by different names. When Bradlee wants to gain her trust or acknowledgement, he calls her by her first name; when he is being more demonstrative or even a bit patronizing, he calls her Mrs. Graham. When she speaks to her male colleagues, Katharine can sway a room simply by the lilt of her tone, regardless of what she is about to say.

Through Janusz Kaminski’s fluid camerawork, we see the swirling pressure of whether or not to publish the Vietnam study, later known as the Pentagon Papers, after the government sanctions the Times against further publication. Ellsberg and Graham are often shot from swooping high angles, showing them surrounded by detractors, however menacing or well-intentioned.

The potential effects of their actions weigh heavy on their shoulders, especially since they could be jailed and their careers ruined. Katharine’s burden is especially heavy as her identity as publisher is doubly precarious should the government succeed in censoring the press; as it is, her physical boundaries are whisper-thin, as in a third-act scene where men surround her in her own dining room, waiting for a decision, and her emotional boundaries between old friends, as with Bob McNamara, and one’s professional and civic duty must be sustained.

As she must rectify these boundaries, so Bradlee must define his past relationship with Jack Kennedy from a new perspective.

Spielberg takes those themes of access, power, voice, and agency, and reflects each in the visuals of the ornaments and the instruments within Katherine’s and Ben’s world: the women who wait outside the doors of the stock exchange while Katherine enters the gauntlet of men waiting to decide the fate of her newspaper; later, she avoids the pulpit outside the courthouse to slip off the side steps, only to wade through a larger crowd of women watching her with respect and admiration.

The wives of the power players know their “cue” to leave the dinner table and adjourn to the den to gab about fashion while the men discuss politics; Mrs. Graham pointedly leans on the back of a sofa facing the hallway. She admits to her daughter, Lally (Alison Brie), that she is in a position “she never thought she’d be in,” but for which she has prepared her entire life and internalized all the structures and protocols of the vehicles around her that will enable her voice to be heard. She ultimately admits, “This is my company, not my father’s or my husband’s,” but when she decides to publish the Papers, she speaks for the group: “Let’s go — let’s do it.”

“The Post” is heavy on dialogue but I wouldn’t say it was dialogue-driven; rather, it emphasizes the power behind words and the potential of those with access to cause change. We see the transfer of power of those words from a meeting on a plane to a locked file cabinet, to a seedy hotel room and a storage box tied with rope, to a typewriter on a coffee table and ultimately a printing press. The film deftly intertwines the denotations of its title as it serves not only as an illustration of the physical edifice as well as its journalists, but also an examination of the path of the Pentagon Papers themselves, and a study of the woman who was given a position and ultimately made it her own while honoring its legacy. By utilizing her duality of outsider and interior player, Katharine Graham enriched The Post’s national voice.

‘The Post’ (2017)

STARRING Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Arthur Parsons, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods

DIRECTOR Steven Spielberg