A shady US President trying to undermine the media, is all you need to know about this film to see it hits the zeitgeist. Like the Oscar-winning Spotlight (2016), it's a tale of newsrooms and investigative reporting serving as a crucial pillar of democracy. Like Spotlight too, it's a heavyweight ensemble, Spielberg behind the lens, his go-to composer John Williams conjuring gravitas and tension, and the editor and proprietor of the then-small-time Washington Post played by Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep going to war over the discovery of a big secret. Secondary characters, Matthew Rhys and Bob Odenkirk, are engaging as the wide-eyed but weary reporters at the coalface of the story, trying not to be arrested for treason.
The film riffs between the action of investigation and the murky ambiguity of what constitutes governmental need-to-know. How many American lives could be endangered by the public knowing the Vietnam war is already lost? This is the crux of the pre-Watergate story that turned the Washington Post into a household name: the revelation that the administrations of Kennedy and Johnson – as well as Nixon – knew they couldn't win in Vietnam and kept sending troops there in their droves. But there are bigger, broader moral questions that overshadow even Vietnam. At one point we see Rhys's journalist on background TV, drawing parallels between the US President and a dictator: if press criticism of a President is seen as wrong, then doesn't this imply the President is the state, his realm to do as he pleases? Meanwhile, Streep's proprietor is at the centre of a zero-sum confrontation with lawyers and FBI on one side, telling her if she runs the story, the Washington Post is finished, while on the other, Hanks and his reporters vent their fury, seeing government intervention as an assault on democracy.
The anti-Press President aside, Streep's character and storyline imbibe a second zeitgeist: the talented woman constantly talked over in boardrooms, her ideas and suggestions drowned out, ignored, then accepted when it's mouthed by a man-in-suit. Streep's is no repeat performance of her Margaret Thatcher (2011), however. Weary acceptance is her mode, until as the pressure mounts, she comes into her own with quiet dignity, the Yes moment you know is coming bringing uplifting release given the backdrop of these Trumpian/Weinsteinian times.The Post, as such, is not a drama you watch to find out how it ends, though the tension is well constructed – this is slicker film-making than Spotlight, perhaps unsurprising given it's a Spielberg film. Instead, like Snowden (2016), it's the kind of film you feel should be played in every school for free, a reminder that democracy is made up of many elements, including a free press, and when that's undermined, never-ending wars and government abuses follow.