Thursday, 25 January 2018

Film Review: Steven Spielberg assembles a great cast for The Post, but Meryl Streep still rules the hour

There's something restrained about The Post, Steven Spielberg's latest offering that finally puts the two acting giants of Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in the same frame for the first time. While hearing those three names in one sentence might not lead you to think of a quiet, unspectacular film, The Post nonetheless has that kind of atmosphere. It rarely gives its two lead actors big, Oscar-speech moments, it takes its time before launching into its energetic, high wire finale, and even its cinematography isn't as flashy as you'd expect from a film of this calibre. No, The Post isn't quite the giant, award swallowing beast we expected when we first heard of it.

It almost feels like a calculated move on Spielberg's behalf, to prevent his film feeling too much like your typical crowd pleasing awards fodder. At the same time, though, the film almost comes across as frustratingly manipulated to reflect the current political climate - there's lots of talk of Presidents fighting against freedom of speech and the rights and wrongs of publishing such incriminating information. Spielberg has a tricky challenge here, but the film's script - penned by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer - juggles its various components well. Comparisons to modern day times are unavoidable, but the film doesn't get too bogged down in them.

We focus mostly on Katherine Graham (Streep), the new owner of The Washington Post, and her decision on whether or not to run the incriminating evidence of the U.S.' involvement in the Vietnam war assembled by her team, including editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and assistant editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk). Fleshing out the ensemble cast are Sarah Paulson, Carrie Coon, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons, Michael Stuhlbarg and Zach Woods - it's an undeniably impressive roster, but then again, who'd turn down the chance to appear in a Spielberg-Streep-Hanks film?

Even with an ensemble cast this big around her, Streep still walks away the winner. Unfairly criticised for her latest Academy Award nomination, Streep is on top form here - without a big powerful moment to define their performance, a lot of actors would struggle in a film like this. Streep embodies Katherine Graham beautifully, especially in her quietest moments - it's the pauses between sentences, the small hand gestures and the background glances that make this such a gripping performance. Graham is an easy character to root for, but Streep makes her much more than that. She becomes a character whose every internal struggle we understand, Hannah and Singer's script exploring her various options both intricately and emotionally. Streep nails the role, and that Oscar nomination feels entirely earned from where I'm sitting.

Hanks brings his usual combination of charm and sincerity to his role, his sly delivery of "Not yet..." when Graham asks Bradlee if he's acquired the documents is one of the film's most quietly enticing moments. Odenkirk's frantic intensity when trying to uncover the information's source leads to some surprise dramatic tension, and even smaller players like Coon and Paulson bring enough personality to their roles to still stand out against much bigger performances. The Post is the very definition of an ensemble piece, but it's one where every cog is functioning in unison, every performance clicking with the one that follows it. Spielberg seems fascinated with the functions of a printing press in his film, but it's the tiny mechanisms within a watch that his cast most closely resembles.

The Post's slower first half may prove frustrating for less patient viewers, but it earns its considered pacing when it springs into its crescendo - a fast cutting, frantically performed chase to the finish line that sparks more moments of tension than you'd expect from a film of its kind. Spielberg directs the hell out of it all - his camera frequently floating above characters in pivotal moments, as if God's own eye is watching down on them - but that calmer first half still prevents The Post from truly hitting greatness. A necessary burden it may be, but The Post just doesn't have the willpower to reach the heights you'd argue it probably should with a cast and crew of this talent. But, then again, perhaps Spielberg holds back on us intentionally, tries to pull his film away from the mammoth spectacle we'd expect. It's tough to know for sure, but The Post both benefits and suffers from its restraint. It's a film I liked very much in the moment but one I find slipping from memory fast, unsure if I'd dive back in any time soon.

In A Sentence

Defined by its ensemble cast, led magnificently by Meryl Streep, The Post is a tremendously acted retelling of an explosive true story, even if it rarely coalesces its strengths into something truly great.

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