Released: 12th January 2018
Seen: 10th January 2018 (Advance Screening)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Liz Hannah & Josh Singer
Produced by: Amblin Entertainment, DreamWorks, Participant Media, Pascal Pictures, Star Thrower Entertainment, River Road Entertainment
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson & Bob Odenkirk
In 1971 the New York Times began printing classified documents relating to the Vietnam war, revealing the real reasons behind it and the actions of the presidents who were running the country during it. They were scandalous, they were explosive, they were promptly silenced by the Nixon administration who took the paper to court, directly stifling their freedom of the press because the Nixon administration was aware that the printing of those documents was going to be an embarrassment to the president (Since sending thousands of men to die in a war that you explicitly know is pointless can certainly be classed as “Embarrassing”). In response to this, the Washington Post picked up where the Times left off and printed more of the papers. This film tells that story, filling in not just a battle over the first amendment that was quickly overshadowed by an even bigger scandal, but also the story of Kay Graham who was the first woman to run a newspaper and what she had to deal with… oh, also it might be a piece of history we may want to remember since we seem to be repeating it.
The performances in this film are sublime, in particular, Meryl Streep as Kay Graham who has to show a woman terrified of the power she now wields who eventually learns the right way to wield it. She presents a woman battling with a male-run industry, in a role that she only has because her husband died and where no one respects her. She has the arduous task of making them respect her and… it’s Meryl Streep, you think they’re going to be able to give her crap for very long? There is also Tom Hanks, taking on Ben Bradlee and making him into a figure who clearly understands the role of the press. It’s not to be liked, it’s not to be the lapdog of a politician, it’s to tell the people the truth and to not bow to the whims of a madman. The two of them together on screen is a delight, they bounce off each other with graceful ease and it astounds me that this is the first time they’ve shared a screen (As far as I can find anyway). They just seem to get each other’s rhythms and say more with a look than they could with a thousand copies of a newspaper. They are the beating heart of this film, aided by a spectacular supporting cast with Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Alison Brie and David Cross just to name a few. It’s the kind of dream team cast one hopes for. The only person in the entire cast who isn’t tip top is the guy who they got to play Nixon, only because he’s miming to the actual Nixon tapes (I wonder how many people back then went “Lordy I hope there are tapes”?) and his miming leaves a bit to be desired but fortunately you’re so distracted by the sheer arrogance of a president who believes that he somehow has the right to curtail the first amendment just because the press is being a little mean to him.
Visually the film is simple but effective. One of Spielberg’s greatest skills is that he knows how to get the story on film, sure we could be doing grand dramatic shots all the time but that’s not what we need here. A simple moving camera that’ll follow the leads and get into those meetings is what we need and we get it perfectly, not a frame feels even slightly off. There is a precision in movement and when things get chaotic in the newsroom, the camera just barely keeps up and it’s glorious. The score by Williams is also a delight, it’s very subtle but it helps keep things moving. The script is also truly something special, even though there is one “As you know” line at the start that bugged me but only because “As you know” is a line that shouldn’t be put in any script ever. But other than that tiny little nitpick, the script had enough heart and warmth to push through the dark periods in the story… OK, now let’s go for the orange elephant that’s been sitting in the room all this time.
A lot of people have pointed out the timing of this film and it’s intent to talk about the current issues regarding the President of the United States and his… let’s be kind and say “Shitfucked” relationship with the press. Yes, this film was made very intentionally as a thumb in the eye of Donald Trump… good. It should be. It needs to be a pointed reminder to him and to the world about what happened the last time that a president decided to try and take down the free press. This film is a battle cry to the press, telling them that they need to remember that the last time a tyrannical leader tried to silence them, they just screamed louder. This film is a cry to the people to remember that presidents aren’t infallible deities, they are men and if they cover up something horrendous they should be held to account. This film is a call to whistle blowers and reminding them that there are times when it’s more important for you to blow that whistle than to be needlessly loyal to a man who wasn’t loyal to his people. Put bluntly, if you see this film and your first thought is that the press is in the wrong… well, that’s a little bit like going to see Spotlight and then defending the Catholic church.
There is very little about this film one can fairly criticise, even when trying to think of a negative the best I can think of is a weird hand movement by a faceless Nixon impersonator and one line of dialogue that won’t bother anyone else but me. The story is more relevant than ever now, in a world where Buzzfeed releases an entire dossier to the public this film matters. Seeing this not even a full 24 hours after Dianne Feinstein allowed the Fusion GPS transcript to be published is a bracing feeling. We didn’t learn, no one learned from Nixon. Nixon may not have gotten away with Watergate, but he got away with a lot and the weapon he used was attacking the media and here we are, that weapon being picked up and used again by someone who wishes he were even half as smart as Richard Nixon.
I may not be an American, I may not have the constitutional rights that Americans do but I am proud to say that I at least know the first amendment to your constitution. Nixon clearly forgot it, Trump seems to ignore it, but The Post celebrates it and champions it and so… the most important piece of text that The Post ever relied on.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances
The text is original. The choice to highlight was mine. Remember your freedom of speech, remember your freedom of the press. Do not let the fight by The Post or The Times be in vain just because a vain man demanded it be ignored.