For the past year, it's been tempting to try and parse every movie that's hit theaters, reading each superhero origin story, goofy comedy, and earnest drama for signs of how it relates to or comments on the age of Trump. And there's good reason for that -- the endless bumbling, corruption, and lies of the current administration has saturated every aspect of our daily lives to the point where it's subsumed all else. If you can make it a single day -- let alone an hour or two -- without worrying about whether the malignant cheez doodle in office is going to lead us into nuclear war with a tweet or erase the rights of marginalized citizens with a flick of his pen, you're an infinitely stronger person than I.
But the reality is that most of these movies have been in production for years before they reach audiences, likely making any connection they have to our precise moment in time a mere coincidence. All this to say that "The Post" hits theaters with a unique advantage: rushed into production just this past May, it's one of the first narrative films to be made directly in response to the Trump presidency.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks -- basically the Holy Trinity of modern prestige filmmaking -- in a sort of prequel-slash-origin-story to "All the President's Men," as the film focuses on the 1971 showdown between The Washington Post and President Nixon over the publishing of the Pentagon Papers.
Leaked by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) to the New York Times, the papers consist of 22 years' worth of documents chronicling American involvement in Vietnam. They paint a very different portrait of the war than had been portrayed to the American public, essentially proving that the government has been lying about the state of things, putting on a good face as it sent more and more of the nation's sons off to die for the cause.
The New York Times is the first to go to press, but when they're served with a federal injunction, the Washington Post has an opportunity to run with the story. Left to face the question of whether or not to publish stolen government documents is Katherine Graham (Streep), the former socialite turned publisher of the Post (the first woman in the country to hold such a position), who inherited the business from her husband after his untimely suicide. Katherine faces pressure from Editor-in-Chief Ben Bradlee (Hanks, reliably good) an old-school newspaperman who believes in the responsibility of the press, while the rest of the paper's board implore her to play it safe.
This critical juncture comes just as the Post is first going public. It's no longer just a small, regional paper, but a true business with investors to consider. One of the things Liz Hannah's script does so well is illustrating the ways media organizations must constantly balance their civic duties while keeping an eye on the bottom line. After all, journalists can't hold anyone to account if they don't have a job.
"The Post" tells the story of a free press duking it out against a corrupt administration and, coming at a time when journalism is again under aggressive attack, calling the film "topical" is understating things considerably. The film also lines up with a moment when the culture is uniquely focused on the experiences of women. As the film becomes the story of how Graham (a figure mostly left out of "All the President's Men") finally comes into her own, finding her voice after years of being the lone woman in rooms filled with condescending, powerful men, Streep makes the most of the role.
Rounding out the cast is a murderers' row of distinguished actors, including Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Tracy Letts, and Michael Stuhlbarg (who deserves some sort of prize for having appeared in no fewer than three likely Best Picture nominees in 2017), all putting in solid work in roles of varying size and importance.
In seeking to tackle our country's current climate, Spielberg has faced criticism that his film is too on the nose. But if he wants to make it impossible for anyone watching the film to miss the point he's trying to make, well, it's hard to argue there's anything wrong with that. "The Post" is populist filmmaking in the best sense: rousing, impeccably crafted, and always riveting. It's an instruction manual for media organizations on how to carry on in tough times, an essential tribute to the role of journalists, and a powerful defense of the free press and the First Amendment.