Timely and timeless themes, such as freedom of the press, feminism, and personal empowerment, permeate The Post, but the absorbing story of The Washington Post’s controversial decision to publish the notorious Pentagon Papers, terrific performances from Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, and elegant direction distinguish Steven Spielberg’s latest historical film. Excellent video and audio transfers and top-notch supplements enhance the Blu-ray presentation, which comes Highly Recommended.
“We have to be the check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable, I mean, my God, who will?”
Though Steven Spielberg has directed some of the most imaginative and entertaining films ever to come out of Hollywood -- Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and Jurassic Park chief among them -- his historical movies best reflect his artistry. The presentations may be more subdued and the subjects may be far from flashy, but the passion behind the ideas, meticulous attention to detail, and timeless underlying themes make Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, and now The Post achieve a lasting resonance. While some may view Spielberg’s latest drama as a hastily mounted bit of Oscar bait designed to make a carefully crafted political statement during a turbulent period, The Post stands on its own as a finely crafted film that examines a watershed event with insight, fervor, elegance, and emotion.
Sure, the themes it explores strike a chord in our contemporary culture, and The Post certainly makes it clear on which side of the fence it stands. But when you’re addressing issues like freedom of the press, gender equality, and personal development and empowerment, there’s only one side of the fence to be on. The Post can be preachy at times and consistently wears its heart on its sleeve, but screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (who penned a couple of other potent journalism films, most notably Spotlight) strive mightily to present this important tale with the respect and gravity it deserves. The fact that Spielberg churned out such a superior movie in a mere nine months is equally impressive, and the swift pacing reflects both its urgent elements and frenzied production schedule.
The previews for The Post promoted it as a political thriller about journalistic ethics, and while that’s not entirely false advertising (fake news?), the crux of the tale centers around the personal evolution of Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the reluctant publisher of The Washington Post, a struggling, “cash poor” local newspaper that dreams of competing with the lofty New York Times and becoming a player on the national journalism scene. Graham took over the paper’s reins after her husband’s suicide, but despite her smarts and social connections, finds herself ill-equipped to work in an intensely chauvinistic world where women are constantly dismissed, marginalized, patronized, and ignored. As the only female in the room, Graham must overcome her passive personality, fight to be heard, and learn how to exert authority, wield influence, and make tough decisions. It’s a tall order and she’s not always sure she’s up to the challenge.
In 1971, former government employee Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) tests her mettle when he begins photocopying top-secret Pentagon documents that reveal the U.S. government lied to the American public for decades regarding its policy in Vietnam. Realizing early on it could never win the war in Southeast Asia, the U.S. continued to fight and sacrifice thousands of American lives not in a noble if futile attempt to stem the tide of Communism, but because Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon refused to accept the humiliation of defeat. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who ordered the secret study and for years participated in the deception, finds himself in the hot seat when Ellsberg turns over the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. After the first excerpts appear, the outraged Nixon administration successfully secures a judicial injunction against further publication, which spurs Ellsberg to leak the papers to the Post. It's then up to Graham to decide whether to violate the law and publish more excerpts, an act that could threaten her long-standing family business and send her and the Post's gruff editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) to prison. Does this former housewife and socialite who valiantly took a job she never wanted have the guts to risk everything to defend the First Amendment and reveal an ugly truth that will disillusion millions of Americans?
It's no secret how The Post turns out (anyone who has studied American history knows the ending), but Spielberg still manages to build tension and capture the furious excitement, passion, and exhaustion that comes with chasing an important yet elusive story. Alan J. Pakula did all that so well in All the President's Men more than 40 years ago, and trust me, after watching The Post, you'll want to revisit that classic again right away. Like a beeline, the cause célèbre surrounding the Pentagon Papers‘ release led directly to the Watergate break-in and ensuing cover-up that would topple Nixon's presidency three years later, and that makes The Post feel like a perfectly crafted prequel to Pakula's film.
Parallels to today's turbulent socio-political climate abound as well. Women still fight to be heard and respected, the press is once again under attack, many feel the government isn't trustworthy, and a controversial, polarizing figure leads the country. (Familiar jargon like “rigged elections” and “collusion” not-so-coincidentally crop up.) Times have changed since 1971, but many of the issues facing our society have not, and that lends The Post both a relevance and relatability many contemporary films lack. Years from now, The Post will most likely settle into a historical niche, but today it strikes a chord - or maybe a nerve - and that doubles its impact.
At the center of it all is Streep, who both leads and overshadows a formidable ensemble cast. At its core, The Post is a personal story, chronicling one woman’s trailblazing journey and unlikely rebirth at an advanced age. Before this film, Graham was largely an unsung heroine in the women’s movement, but thanks to an astute script and Streep’s beautifully measured, graceful yet steely portrayal, she finally gets her due. Exuding a painful insecurity that gradually morphs into a tentative and then more forceful confidence, Streep captures the essence of what many women felt and continue to feel in a male-dominated world. And like she has done so many times when playing real-life characters, from Karen Silkwood to Julia Child to Margaret Thatcher, Streep steps into Graham’s shoes as if she’s worn them all her life. Her understated performance may have been overshadowed at this year’s Oscars by showier work, but her superb turn ranks as one of her finest...and for someone who’s been nominated for a whopping 21 Academy Awards, that’s saying something.
Hanks captures the gravelly-voiced, no-nonsense Bradlee quite well, projecting the brash confidence and dedicated work ethic that defined this iconic, roll-up-your-sleeves, get-your-hands-dirty editor. Although it’s tough to accept anyone other than Jason Robards in the role (he won an Oscar playing him in All the President’s Men), Hanks makes Bradlee his own and creates a comfortable chemistry with Streep that helps fuel the film. Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitfield, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Greenwood, Rhys, and a host of others all contribute great work as well.
There’s a lot going on in The Post, but it manages its various components -- narrative, issues, themes -- like sections in a newspaper, making them easy to absorb and digest. Spielberg’s direction is fluid and slick, but the underlying substance provides the film with a firm foundation and solid emotional core. (Mark my words, Meryl will make you cry.) There’s something thrilling about a crackerjack journalism movie, and The Post delivers mightily in that regard. Yet beneath the headlines and history lies an inspirational tale of personal growth, courage, perseverance, and standing up for inalienable rights that touches both women and men, and that’s what makes The Post special.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Post arrives on Blu-ray packaged in an eco-friendly blue plastic case inside a sleeve along with a standard-def DVD, a leaflet that contains the code for the Movies Anywhere digital copy, and a leaflet offering a free 60-day digital subscription to The Washington Post (clever marketing tool). Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Fox serves up a crisp, clean 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that features excellent contrast and clarity and just a hint of grain to provide both a film-like feel and heighten the period atmosphere. The muted color palette suits the newsroom, boardroom, and courtroom settings, but when the narrative shifts to Graham’s stately home, a lovely warmth bathes the image and splashes of primary and pastel hues nicely pop. Black levels are rich and deep, whites are bright but never bloom, and flesh tones remain natural and stable throughout. Patterns are rock solid and resist shimmering, background details like wallpaper patterns and various decorative items are easy to discern, and sharp close-ups nicely highlight the careworn faces of the cast. Not a single nick or mark sullies the pristine source material and no digital doctoring could be detected. The Post isn’t a flashy film from a visual standpoint, but this superior transfer immerses us in the action and seamlessly transports us to another era.
A surprisingly immersive DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track heightens the impact of the film. From the opening Vietnam War scenes that feature crisp machine gun fire to the incessant tapping of typewriter keys in the newsroom, finely rendered sounds provide a critical sense of atmosphere and keep the senses engaged. Surround activity is noticeable, especially during a rain sequence and the newsroom and printing scenes, yet isolated elements like popping flashbulbs and slamming doors are seamlessly woven into the track’s fabric, while distinct stereo separation across the front channels widens the soundscape and provides striking directional effects. Strong bass frequencies supply necessary weight and a wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows without a hint of distortion. All the dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend, and John Williams’ majestic score fills the room with ease, thanks to exceptional fidelity and tonal depth. Films that take place in offices, boardrooms, restaurants, and stately homes usually don’t include interesting soundtracks, but The Post is a notable exception, and this high-quality track maximizes all the elements.
The Post comes packed with a bushel of high-quality, comprehensive featurettes, all produced by the format's master (and frequent Spielberg collaborator), award-winning documentary filmmaker Laurent Bouzereau. All the special features are located on the accompanying Blu-ray disc.
Featurette: "Layout: Katharine Graham, Ben Bradlee & The Washington Post" (HD, 22 minutes) - This terrific background package provides essential historical perspective on Graham, Bradlee, Ellsberg, The Washington Post, the Vietnam War, Pentagon Papers, and Nixon White House. Interviewees include two of Graham’s children and one grandchild, Bradlee’s widow Sally Quinn, and Daniel Ellsberg himself, who explains his motives and actions surrounding the release of the Pentagon Papers. The impact of Graham’s husband’s suicide, the hiring of Bradlee, the era’s social climate, and the close relationship between Graham and Bradlee are also examined, and a slew of archival photos illustrate the period’s events.
Featurette: "Editorial: The Cast and Characters of The Post" (HD, 16 minutes) - This slick piece covers the broad spectrum of performers who populate the film, from the major stars like Streep and Hanks, all the way down to minor, but essential, players. (Remember, according to the old adage, there are no small parts, only small actors.) We learn from Spielberg that all his first choices readily agreed to appear in the movie, and both Spielberg and Hanks lavishly praise Streep's work. Streep herself talks about her preparation for her role, the challenges she faced, and how she hoped above all to capture Kay Graham's "personal grace." The long-term Spielberg-Hanks collaboration is also addressed, along with the film's timely nature.
Featurette: "The Style Section: Recreating an Era" (HD, 17 minutes) - In this fascinating featurette, Washington Post consultants and former employees reminisce about the more primitive period in which they worked and how the newsroom set, right down to its typewriters, butt-filled ashtrays, vintage desks, first-generation Xerox machines, and rotary-dial telephones, perfectly jives with their memories. Authenticity was a top priority for the crew, many of whom discuss the movie's sound, props, makeup, and the pitch-perfect costumes by legendary designer Ann Roth. A look at the old printing presses and linotype machines Spielberg so lovingly showcases throughout the picture is also included here.
Featurette: "Stop the Presses: Filming The Post" (HD 26 minutes) - This mini-documentary examines the rushed production schedule (which included no rehearsal time for the time for the actors, much to Streep's dismay), the genesis of Spielberg's involvement in the project, the film's cinematography and lighting, Spielberg's "play it by ear" direction, and the gender equality and freedom of the press themes the movie so adroitly addresses. Screenwriter Liz Hannah reveals her "obsession" with Katharine Graham, Streep lauds Spielberg's style and direction, the Vietnam War sequence is dissected, and we learn more women worked on the movie than men. Spielberg notes everything pretty much fell into place during production, leading him to believe The Post was "meant to happen."
Featurette: "Arts & Entertainment: Music for The Post" (HD, 7 minutes) - The legendary John Williams, with an assist from Spielberg, talks about how to make music "constructive," how it can enhance performance, and his decision to employ both orchestral and electronic themes during the film. The long-standing Spielberg-Williams collaboration is also touched upon in this brief piece.
The Post may not end up in the top tier of films directed by Steven Spielberg, but it’s a meticulously produced, superbly acted, and utterly absorbing movie that uses a historical context to address some current hot-button issues. Freedom of the press, feminism, and personal evolution in a prejudicial climate are just some of the themes that swirl about this insightful chronicle of The Washington Post’s quandary over whether to publish the notorious Pentagon Papers, which exposed government lies and shocking policies concerning the Vietnam War. Meryl Streep gives one of the year’s best performances as Post publisher Katharine Graham, whose personal history is seamlessly entwined in the tale. Excellent video and audio transfers and a collection of high-quality featurettes distinguish Fox’s Blu-ray presentation, which comes Highly Recommended.