Warning: This article contains spoilers about ”The Post.”
Every great Steven Spielberg movie is compared to the last great Steven Spielberg movie. Maybe you’ll think “The Post,” a new biopic about The Washington Post’s efforts to expose the American government’s duplicitous Vietnam War tactics, is Spielberg’s best since “Lincoln” in 2012. Or “Munich” in 2005. Maybe you’d harken back to 2002, calling it his finest since “Catch Me If You Can” or “Minority Report.” (We send our regrets to “The Terminal.”)
The world’s most famous director works so voraciously, and with such creative consistency, that contrasting his successes is almost futile. Even at its weakest, there’s nothing like that classic Spielberg polish.
However you valuate “The Post” against the rest of Spielberg’s oeuvre, the film’s appeal is infinite. I fell even harder for it on a second viewing, particularly one scene that ranks among the most thrilling phone calls ever captured onscreen: when Washington Post publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham decides to move forward with an exposé despite the Nixon administration’s injunction barring The New York Times from releasing the same information.
The moment crystallizes the entire film. It’s a proverbial applause break that kicks the third act into hyperdrive.
Everything that matters in “The Post” can be gleaned from this one transaction, which crackles with an old-fashioned tension that recalls dramas from the 1970s. Graham (Meryl Streep), who inherited the role after her husband’s death, is managing an organization dominated by men. In June 1971, the same week that loquacious Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and star reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) get ahold of the classified documents that would become known as the Pentagon Papers, Graham is taking the company public, a process that again thrusts her into boardrooms monopolized by dudes. If the Post’s story is rebuked, the newspaper’s value could falter. And now the White House, which for years concealed the military’s breadth in Vietnam, is besmirching the First Amendment and threatening to silence the press. If the Post publishes, its staff risks being held in contempt of court.
Graham is tasked with adjudicating the risk. Does she hold the government accountable, thereby prioritizing resolute journalism? Or should she be a prudent businesswoman and protect her paper’s bottom line?
Graham, shimmering in a divine golden caftan, is throwing a party when her trusted adviser, Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), phones her from Bradlee’s den. There, Post employees are sorting through the Vietnam documents, feverishly prepping a front-page scoop for the next morning. Beebe has called to warn her of its arrival. Bradlee, in a dramatic attempt to stop Fritz from talking Graham out of publishing the story, hops on the line. Meanwhile, two of Graham’s naysaying board members (Bradley Whitford and Brent Langdon), who happen to be at her party, pick up receivers in her living room. The exchange balloons into a six-way call when editorial-page editor Phil Geyelin (Pat Healy) joins seconds later, telling Graham that two reporters are threatening to quit if the article isn’t published. The ticktock cuts rapidly between each participant, anxiety mounting. They hang in the balance, awaiting her decision.
Janusz Kaminski, the Polish cinematographer who has shot each of Spielberg’s movies since 1993′s “Schindler’s List,” knew “The Post” would brim with “big speeches and possibly boring interiors,” so he sought to ”[make] the camera be an active participant” in the commotion. Spielberg is famous for knowing exactly what his movies should look like before they begin production, and he gave Kaminski inspired instructions on how to frame Streep, the true protagonist, who is alone in an office at Graham’s house during the call.
“I say we can; he says we can’t ― there, you’re caught up,” Bradlee barks after Graham picks up the phone, referring to his and Fritz’s divided opinions on whether to publish the story. Kaminski’s camera ― placed on a platform constructed for the set ― then pans upward and rests overhead, miniaturizing Streep as she stands there, listening to the chorus of voices. And then, with a jolt of suspense, while John Williams’ strings score remains faint, the camera slowly revolves around Graham at 360 degrees. That concept came from Spielberg, and the resulting mobility is electric. The audience peers down at her, sympathetically observing her thought process, made palpable by the room’s warm lighting, as well as Streep’s tense facial expressions and jittery hand gestures. The men, meanwhile, are seen in darker, more brooding settings. Hope rests with Graham.
Because the exchange is intercut with static closeups of the men on the other end of the line, that aerial shot of Streep ― more expansive, more invigorating ― generates a certain edginess. Like the camera, everyone else orbits her.
″[Tom Hanks’ shots used] a wider angle so you can see his hand in the frame,” Kaminski said by phone last week. “With Tracy Letts, it’s a little bit more dramatic because he was the one that was the most nervous about the whole situation. The other guys [do not support] the idea of publishing because they would lose money and all that stuff. They were afraid of the legal repercussions, so those shots were more formal. Whereas, with Tom, I didn’t want to be formal; I wanted to be more energized and slightly more nervous, so it was little bit more active.”
In a stroke of genius, the camera returns to a closeup of Graham as she asks for Fritz’s guidance. “I guess I wouldn’t publish,” he says, and Kaminski steadily pushes in on her. The nervous music crescendoes, prompting even those familiar with the historical outcome to grip their seats. After pausing to let Graham ponder the advisers’ feedback, the camera tightens on her face. Suddenly, she embodies the entire frame, as if summoning all her might. Once miniature, she’s now maximized. Streep bites her lip, exhales and finally, in a moment of unbridled triumph, proclaims, “Let’s go, let’s do it.”
A pause as she considers her words.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. Let’s publish.”
The camera pans out again as she hangs up, giving you permission to release the breath you’ve been holding. History is made, and Graham’s conflict is humanized.
Unlike some directors, Spielberg doesn’t ask his actors to do many takes. Kaminski said he nailed Streep’s sequence in “four or five” tries, necessary for technical purposes rather than anything concerning her performance. She’s Meryl Streep, after all. Even though the actress would slightly modify her tonality each time, Kaminski said, she “gives an importance to the written word” and needs no thorough adjustments. As Streep, Hanks and the rest of the cast have noted in press interviews, they sought to honor the saga’s prescient topicality.
“The biggest decision I made was to stay away from too much of a heavy period look,” Spielberg told The Hollywood Reporter. “I wanted this movie to feel very contemporary, just like the story. I wanted people to feel there is a [direct parallel] between what was happening in 1971 — and the Nixon administration and Washington Post — and what’s happening right now with this administration and [Trump’s] desire to control the press and freedom of speech. I used lots of nondirectional soft light. Normally, I like to use harder light, but for this movie my aim was to be very quiet about my work.”
Compared to, say, “Catch Me If You Can,” a whirlwind that required a bounty of locations and complicated lighting setups, this was “a rather simple movie to make,” Kaminski said. In late February, Spielberg was casting what he thought would be his next project, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.” He was struggling to find a lead when his agents sent over the first draft of “The Post,” written by Liz Hannah. (“Spotlight” scribe Josh Singer later came aboard for a rewrite. They are both credited on the finished version.) Spielberg, now 71, dropped what he was doing and fast-tracked the shoot so it could open this year. “The Post” started filming in late May; it opened in limited release on Dec. 22, when many critics deemed it Spielberg’s best work since ― you guessed it ― “Lincoln” or “Munich” or “Minority Report” or [insert your own choice here].
“I would have shot this movie a little different,” Kaminski said when asked to reflect on the experience. “It probably would be a little bit cooler and a little bit more shadowy. But at the moment we were doing such a transparent movie — everyone was transparent. I felt I didn’t need to create any mystery there. I wanted to be understated. [...] This one was a complicated movie from a production point of view. It was complicated for Steven because of all the characters, all the performances, and how to maintain the integrity of each performance and having so many frames. For me, sometimes lighting became a little more general, particularly in that Washington Post office, where I knew the camera was going to move a lot and I couldn’t be very specific with the lighting because we would not be able to free the director to look 360 all around the actors.”
“But other than that,” he added, “it was a very enjoyable production.”
“The Post” opens in wide release on Jan. 12.
Clarification: A previous version of this story said that in “The Post,” Katharine Graham has not held a job before managing the newspaper. While her character indicates this in the movie, Graham herself had worked at newspapers before her marriage.