Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks team up for this flashy Oscar bait from Steven Spielberg
Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg join forces for a story of journalistic integrity in perhaps one of the most Oscar-enticing concoctions in recent memory. What's more, it's co-written by Josh Singer who won an Academy Award for his screenplay for 2015's Spotlight, also set in the newspaper business. Yet while that film was a masterpiece of deft characterisation and understatement, this is an old-fashioned Hollywood showstopper, sensational in places but by far the lesser film.
Streep plays Katharine 'Kay' Graham – as owner of The Washington Post she's America's first female newspaper publisher. Part of an elite set, Graham nevertheless commands zero respect professionally. A test of her mettle occurs in 1971 when she has the chance to print the revelations contained within the Pentagon Papers, a scathing study of the US's involvement in Vietnam.
The paper's bullish editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) is mustard-keen but matters are complicated by the legal interventions of the Nixon administration and Graham's close personal relationship with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). Singer and his co-writer Liz Hannah adeptly explore a troubling feature of the time (no less relevant now), asking when the politicians and press are bosom buddies who holds the former to account?
The stellar supporting cast (Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys) step back to allow Hanks and Streep to do their thing. Streep has a great do-or-die decision-making moment, a conference call dripping with Hitchcockian suspense and stylings. Both performances are sizeable if predictable, with the leads bringing everything you'd expect to their roles. Yet Streep can't help but be commanding – her stature as an actress sometimes makes her an odd fit for a character who's often invisible to those around her.
The film's emotional drive is channelled into obvious Oscar-clip speeches, the integrity of such sequences undercut by their contrivance, while the inclusion of Spielbergian tropes – cutesy kids, a nurturing but sidelined spouse – rankle given what's at stake. The marvellous Sarah Paulson is criminally underutilised as Bradlee's wife, cheering on her fella and somewhat unnecessarily spelling out the movie's feminist stance, welcome though that emphasis is.
When The Post moves into its final act, Spielberg cranks up the tension magnificently and there are flourishes enough, even if the pay-off feels cringingly feel-good and then strangely flat. Nevertheless, as Spotlight illustrated throughout, sometimes you need to dial down the razzle-dazzle for the soul of a story to shine.
General release from Fri 19 Jan.