Steven Spielberg directs Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Bob Odenkirk in this political thriller about the Washington Post’s 1971 tribulations in publishing some top secret White House documents, and their female owner facing opposing pressure from her editorial staff, investors and Nixon himself.
Look who’s back, Spielberg’s back! He’s been treading water with decent if unfussy cinema ever since War of the Worlds back in 2005, but now the wunderkind has recaptured his masterpiece mojo. This is the sorta mechanically elegant, playfully engaging drama he made his name on. While it lacks sharks and close encounters it takes us to another world (the lost analogue printing press rooms and pay phone based, lead chasing research that feels foreign in this age of digital media and “press release” cut and pasting) and relates the stakes to us with a sense of nimble magic. The verbal battles between a persuasive Hanks and an embattled Streep are edited with verve. As the power between editor and owner ebbs and peaks, the shots lose their natural flow and the cuts become increasingly obvious, as fractious as the relationship is under this new strain. The whole Spielberg team is back on form here really with the grainy yet rich cinematography by Janusz Kamiński catching those beams of blinding light emanating from a illicit photocopying session, the brutal maze of highway on and off ramps that frame Odenkirk’s story hound as he goes off grid along a series of payphones. John Williams’ triumphantly jaunty score guides our emotions and energies, the Amblin crew is nothing if not expertly manipulative. It is his first standout soundtrack in years. And stock player Tom Hanks brings his usual star powered humble charm. There’s something so welcoming about his classy Americana and he adds an adult mischievousness – a thrill of the chase- to the barking editor role that showier thesps would no doubt overlook… he now even evokes John Wayne occasionally in his chunky, square saunter and confidence. Who expected that from the kid from Dragnet? I’m usually not a massive fan of Streep but here she shines as the flustered grand dame stepping up to the plate in the male dominated world of executive decisions. She essays an intelligent yet thoughtfully cautious woman very well. The moment when she breaks free from the bullying men, leaning heavily on her, visually and figuratively, is a triumphant use of both directorial framing and acting. She, like Indiana Jones, Oskar Schindler and most Spielberg protagonists is the positive face of capitalism: striving hard against the grip of corruption and oppression but with a healthy profit margin still in sight. Sure, there are schmaltzy moments overemphasising Katharine Graham’s feminist import to the times and contrasting just what a stuffy sausage party seventies’ business and politics were. But if you haven’t come for schmaltz and clean, obvious optical storytelling then you shouldn’t have bought a ticket for a Spielberg film. He’s never been afraid to ram a point home with his camera. At the very least the points he makes so effusively and entertainingly here, points about the freedom of the press and how hard our women have to work to garner equal respect in the workplace, are currently more than worth emphasising and re-emphasising.