(USA, 115 min.)
Dir. Steven Spielberg, Writ. Liz Hannah and Josh Singer
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Bruce Greenwood, Carrie Coon
There’s a great argument with Karina Longworth’s book Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor that suggests Meryl Streep is in many ways the true author of films in which she stars. However, the long running, if increasingly unfashionable, “auteur theory” pioneered by Cahiers du Cinéma types posits the director as a film’s unwavering beacon of artistic vision. Every choice in a film, they say, is a creative one made, summoned, or encouraged by the director. The theory, peddled mostly by male writers about male directors, arguably bears a direct responsibility for the gender imbalances in film that continue today. When a star like Meryl Streep is cranking out 100-million dollar hits, building a base of young fans, and hitting a career-high while in approaching the age of 70, that hierarchy needs to be re-evaluated.
Longworth’s assessment of Streep’s body of work considers the actress’s performances as creative advances for feminism that deliver complex and multifaceted women in a medium traditionally defined by male heroes. A (fair) criticism of Streep’s oeuvre that Longworth and other writers make, however, is that she rarely works with great directors (with the exception of Mike Nichols, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Altman), so her performances inevitably steal the show.
But now Meryl Streep stars for the biggest director Hollywood has ever seen: Mr. Steven Spielberg. After Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg has carved out a uniquely two-pronged career path in which he’s (mostly) excelled at delivering fantastically produced feats of escapism and hard-hitting dramas for mainstream audiences. The Post falls into the latter category with its timely true story of the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971—documents admitting America’s failure in Vietnam and desire to forge ahead despite having no chance of winning.
The Post is the best film that Spielberg has made since 2002’s Catch Me If You Can, and while it ranks among the finest achievements of his career, The Post is not a “Steven Spielberg Film.” It’s a “Meryl Streep Movie.” It’s the latter for being carried so richly and distinctly by the magnetic gravitas of its leading lady. (To Spielberg’s credit, the film is artistically and technically without a fault, although it could have done without the bizarre ending that introduces the Watergate scandal like a new entry in the Heroic Journalism Cinematic Universe.)
Streep owns The Post in one of the most assured and natural performances of her career. She stars as Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post who carries the burden of making the call to run the secrets held within the Pentagon Papers. Graham assumes the added responsibility of having to make this judgement as a woman in a leadership role in a field in which women traditionally weren’t allowed to do much besides fetch coffee and take memos. When Streep stands before a room of men and defends her position while wearing a gold-embroidered kaftan, The Post offers one of the most rousingly heroic movie moments of the year.
The Post doesn’t pander in depicting Graham’s struggle to convince her male colleagues to take her seriously. Rather, there are some spectacular line readings from Streep as she navigates newsrooms and boardrooms full of men, gathering her confidence while they dismissively put her in her place. Streep knows the challenges an actress faces in pursuing creative endeavours and expressing a voice, and her interpretation of Graham is an accessible portrait of a revolutionary breaking through the glass ceiling.
Streep’s performance captivates precisely because she shows the character’s self-doubts, like a leader plagued with imposter syndrome despite being smart and pragmatic enough to excel in her work. Delivering lines in Graham’s sturdy, but cautiously soft-spoken cadence, Streep weighs every word of the script. The screenplay by newcomer Liz Hannah and Spotlight’s Josh Singer rattles Kay’s confidence here and there as memories of her late husband’s suicide remind her, and her doubters, that she took over the paper after his death even though her father willed the paper to her husband. In a sense, she’s taking on a massive role that the jaded men feel she neither inherited nor earned.
Take one scene, for example, when Kay faces the serious reality of publishing information from the papers. She goes to the home of an old friend, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), to give him the courtesy of a head’s up and to ask him personally about the validity of the information, which is quite damaging to his name. As Kay enters the house and strolls around the spacious corridors, Streep anxiously fumbles with her character’s car keys as if she would rather hit the pavement than confront the fact that she may have been complicit in helping her friends conceal America’s secrets by failing to tough questions. But Streep brings to life in Kay the essential choice that must be made to seek the truth: no matter how uncomfortable the facts make us, it’s one’s duty, now more than ever, to face hard realities and speak truth to power. The firmer grasp she finds on the keys, the stronger hold she gains on herself.
At the same time, there are great scenes of Graham’s family life. Streep doesn’t change keys between settings and unlike other characters of the Mad Men era who alternate personas from work and home, Graham is the same in her personal and professional lives. Her family legacy is the paper, and Streep’s investment in preserving this legacy resonates in a touching monologue in which Graham recalls family memories with her daughter (Allison Brie). This sort of monologue appears in every Meryl Streep movie and it’s often a key to the greatness and depth behind her performances. (Auteur theory, there, you go!)
Streep’s performance is at the heart of The Post’s incredibly timely message about the value of a free and independent press. The power of truth tellers resides not in the government but in everyday heroes like Katherine Graham and the Washington Post’s editorial team who put their careers, reputations, and names on the line in the service of telling a story their country needed to hear. That team in The Post includes editor Ben Bradlee (a formidable Tom Hanks), managing editor Howard Simons (David Cross) and reporters Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) and Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon), but also Bradlee’s wife Tony (Sarah Paulson) and whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys). The performances combine to make for the year’s best casts in one of 2017’s most timely and significant films.
The Post is most exciting for seeing Streep in top form not as the leader of an ensemble, but a member of one. Like her character, Streep shows that good leadership is being part of a team and working together. If only more of America’s leaders would follow suit.
The Post opens in Canada January 12, 2018.