The Post: Defending a free press

Give the greatest filmmaker of our generation a pair of Oscar winners performing one of the year’s most topical scripts and you’ve got yourself a practically surefire recipe for success.

For as much cavalcade and fanfare as Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” rightfully earns on paper, the end result is an above-average film that somehow doesn’t live up to all the promise.

This is a good, not great journalism movie rushed to screens across the country to prove a political point. While it doesn’t deliver the impact of 2015’s Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” Spielberg’s latest film still reminds audiences the real value of a free, independent media amid a highly partisan political environment.

Though the film rightfully acknowledges the work of The New York Times, “The Post” follows the executive editorial staff of The Washington Post in 1971 pre-Watergate as journalists across the country uncovered secrets of the Vietnam War hidden within the Pentagon Papers.

Other films might focus on Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the infamous documents, or even the Times’ First Amendment trial against the government. Yet Spielberg speeds through relevant historical events in CliffNotes-like fashion in order to focus on moral and ethical dilemmas facing Post staff and their publisher, Katherine Graham, the first female head of a major American newspaper.

Critics and audiences alike will talk about Academy Award winner Meryl Streep’s showy, demonstrative performance as Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham. It’s a role that could easily define the latter stages of her illustrious career despite being one of her most pedestrian efforts to date.

This isn’t to say that Streep doesn’t deliver in spades, but that mediocre material she works with and rapid pace Spielberg filmed under kept Streep from delivering yet another career-defining performance.

The closest thing to a modern-day Jimmy Stewart, America’s consummate everyman Tom Hanks should be a shoo-in for the Oscar nomination he hasn’t seen since 2001, an absolute travesty in the industry.

As Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, Hanks is the epitome of the stern, well-meaning boss insisting on the truth and seeking out the best in his staff at every turn. Audiences will buy into his performance on resume alone, although Hanks’ authenticity in the role experience in journalism he simply doesn’t have.

Frankly, the biggest strength of “The Post” stems from its illustrious, talented supporting cast including a nomination worthy turn from Bob Odenkirk as assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian, Bruce Greenwood as longtime Department of Defense head Robert McNamara, Alison Brie as Graham’s daughter Lally and “The Americans” star Matthew Rhys as Ellsburg.

Criticizing Spielberg is difficult given the fact that he signed on to the film in March and spent a mere 43 days making “The Post.” Despite its cinematic warts, there’s no doubt that the film is quintessential Spielberg, a film that categorically draws its audience in and leaves them begging for more regardless of how haphazard and disjointed the script from first-time writer Liz Hannah and Josh Singer gets.

It’s impossible to make a film about The Washington Post and not evoke Alan J. Pakula’s seminal classic “All The President’s Men,” a movie casting a massive shadow over “The Post” from start to finish. For as good as Hanks is in the role, there’s simply no comparing his work to Jason Robards’ iconic turn as Bradlee. “The Post” doesn’t exude the grit-and-grind mentality of true investigative journalism, either.

Oscar hopes for “The Post” certainly weren’t helped by a lackluster showing at this year’s Golden Globes, where the film was shut out despite six nominations. Spielberg and company are just as likely to remain a bridesmaid and never a bride at the Academy Awards, which should shower “The Post” in nominations that will feel like runner-up ribbons.

Given the film’s relevance to the current political climate, a best picture nod seems like a foregone conclusion, as do nominations for Spielberg as best director, Hanks for best actor and a 21st nomination for Streep. Barring a massive shift (or well timed tweet from Washington), it’s unlikely that “The Post” will pose any serious threat to take home a golden statuette this March.

Political biases on either side of the aisle will ultimately frame how audiences view “The Post,” a film that by no means shies away from espousing certain ideology. Smart viewers will still set all of that aside and take “The Post” for what it’s truly meant to be, an unabashed defense of free press and yet another reminder of the long-term impact quality investigative journalism can have on a local and national level.

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