Because I spent much of my life dreaming I that I would become a journalist, I do hold a romantic vision of the field. Instead of the churn factories where underpaid scribes simply rewrite whatever press releases were sent to them that day, I still like to imagine journalists on the prowl, meeting sources in dark alleyways to make sure they got the scoop. While I would never end up joining the field other than doing some news for a football website, I will always be fond of journalism and will often defend it. And I always love movies based on journalism such as The Post. But is it any good?
The New York Times gets a huge scoop when it reveals the existence of files implicating four presidents knew that they could not win the Vietnam War. When an injunction prevents them from publishing the files and the Washington Post gets a hold of them, editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks, Cast Away) fights to publish the files.
I think it is natural to compare this movie to Spotlight. Not only are both movies a celebration of journalism but they tackle many of the same themes in similar ways. It sees a group of journalists under pressure from the top to get a big scoop working hard to get exactly that despite many issues potentially stopping them from doing that. It is unfortunate that The Post comes after because it’s going to suffer from those comparisons as it has got the subject second. There are some key differences to discuss first off. Firstly, this movie is an obvious starring vehicle where you could call Spotlight a true ensemble piece. Here, Ben Bradlee is the lead as he fights to get this story published. There’s a co-lead in fairness as owner and publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep, Out of Africa) wrangles with the legacy of owning the newspaper, but this is still a story focusing on certain people rather than a mass like Spotlight.
With the movie being focused on two particular stars they need to be on the top of their acting games. And because they are Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, they are of course brilliant. This is probably the most passionate that Hanks has been in a role in a while. The charm is still there but it is stripped back because because that’s not the character. Here he is a force of nature who is slowly growing more angry that the Washington Post is not getting the breaks that other newspapers, particularly the New York Times. So he is willing to risk everything to get the Post to that level of fame. And Kay is a typical Meryl Streep role so don’t expect anything too different from her. But she does do these roles incredibly well and it leads to some fantastic moments.
This movie also feels a lot more glamorous than Spotlight though there still isn’t that much glamour. Because this takes place in an era where newspapers were far more important than the early 2000s that Spotlight took place in, and even then newspapers were far more important than they are now, there is a bit less grunt work shown and things are shown to be as cool and secretive as we want journalists to be. So yes, we do get a scene where a journalist talks to a source on a payphone then meets them in a dodgy motel room. Not just knocking on a million doors before getting the one that gives you the break you need. So there is less frustration in getting the information for the story because they do cool journalist stuff to get it. The frustration comes later.
The main crux of the movie is the argument of whether to publish a dangerous story. But not in the way you might expect. The idea of the press vs the government is at the forefront but the movie pretty much says it bluntly that the press should be allowed to publish things that damage the government. There’s no real argument about that. No, the argument is how publishing certain stories could damage the newspaper in the long run. So publishing these files may be massive, but the injunctions and legal battle could force the newspaper to close. And would that mean that other scoops may get missed in the future? It’s an interesting question and the scenes where this is explored are the best, though it’s clear the movie comes down on one side. I actually wanted more of this but there is still a story to tell.
I do really like this movie but there is something that is way too cheesy not to mention. There is some proper sequel baiting. I don’t feel it’s too much of a spoiler to say it but if you are spoilerphobic, head to the last paragraph now. But at the end of this movie, a security guard is looking around a hotel complex to find some people who have broken in. This complex is Watergate and as I’m guessing you have a basic understanding of recent US history, this is the incident that saw Richard Nixon removed from office. The problem is not that being here, it of course is going to be here in some way, but the way it is done. The whole way it is shot and paced makes it feel more like a Marvel end credits scene than a prestige picture. So instead of coming across as saying this is about to happen, it feels like a tease for The Post 2. Which I’m sure is not going to happen.
The Post is an excellent movie which shows how important journalism is for holding power to account. It does hold many similiarities with Spotlight and I do prefer the focus on grunt work that the older movie has but that does not mean this should be dismissed. There are enough key differences to make it an important movie in its own right and it has two great leading performances to anchor it down. I should also praise the supporting cast as they are also fantastic. But definitely go watch this one even if it is in essence, a great big advert to get a subscription to the Washington Post.