'The Post' film review: Streep, Hanks shine in this battle for the free press

'The Post' film review: Streep, Hanks shine in this battle for the free press

This is a battle for the soul of the first amendment with the future of journalism hanging in the balance. Steven Spielberg has returned to form with "The Post" (opening in select cities Dec. 22), an exciting drama powered by absolute standout performances from Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

In short: The leadership of the Washington Post - the country's first female newspaper publisher Katharine Graham (Streep) and its driven editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) - struggle with the decision whether to publish the controversial Pentagon Papers. Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood and Sarah Paulson also star.

Sometimes greatness is saying what needs to be said when it is imperative to say it. The parallels between the Nixon administration's contentious relationship with the press and the current political climate cannot be ignored. Films should and must be judged on the merits of their basic components - but sometimes timeliness must also be a consideration. In a vacuum, "The Post" is a patently remarkable drama - but in these times and given the current climate, it is particularly imperative now. This film serves as a cautionary tale against those over-leveraging their power and a celebration of those willing to risk everything to take a principled stand and fight the good fight. The ability to capture the current thoughts and concerns of the day and craft a relevant, historically-based story is itself no small feat. The ability to tell the story of historic characters struggling against a past (yet modern and applicable) threat is one of the very reasons people tell stories: to reassure, to inspire and to forewarn. 

"The Post" operates on several levels of dramatic tension and all the players have so much at stake. Layering the newspaper's tenuous business future atop the Pentagon Papers puts everyone at the Post in an impossible situation: publish the papers and endanger the future or do nothing and damage the paper's legacy. For a film with relatively few actual plot events, "The Post" keeps its many wheels turning by consistently putting its ensemble of characters at odds philosophically.

While serving as a spiritual prequel to "All the President's Men" - a film dominated by male characters - adding Graham adds a new dynamic. While journalists fight on behalf of the free press and board members pressure Graham to make a responsible business decision, every crucial and impossible decision falls upon Graham - a female leader who stands to lose everything. The attitudes of the men around her - and her feelings as a woman in leadership during the 1970s - is every bit as relevant as any commentary the film makes regarding the free press.

Streep gets a smart and complex character in Katharine Graham torn by her ethics, her business responsibilities and the Washington Post's legacy. She is the embodiment and focal point of the internal conflict of the moment - a business leader beholden to a building full of employees and a newspaper publisher duty-bound to the first amendment. Hanks delivers a commanding and forceful performance -- but in many respects, his role is easier than Streep's. His Ben Bradlee is the First Amendment personified, providing a passionate urgency and sense of duty that is every bit worthy of the character once played by Jason Robards. Hanks deserves credit for his fiery performance but Streep deserves acclaim for her nuanced turn.

And despite being a historical drama, "The Post" perfectly wraps with an ending that is inspiring, terrifying and exciting. This film absolutely demands a double-feature of "The Post" and "All the President's Men."

Final verdict: "The Post" - the best Spielberg film since "Saving Private Ryan" - is a vital film in the age of Trump. Spectacular ensemble cast lead by a pair of powerhouse leads captivate in this eerily timely and exciting docudrama.

Score: 5/5

"The Post" opens in select cities Dec. 22. This historical drama is rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence and has a running time of 116 minutes.

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