Chuck Koplinski: Spielberg's 'The Post' a timely tale of power of press

Chuck Koplinski: Spielberg's 'The Post' a timely tale of power of press

The timing couldn't be better for the release of Steven Spielberg's "The Post," and the director is well aware of its importance.

The script by first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah crossed the filmmaker's desk in early 2017 and went into production in May. A sprint to get the film released by the end of the year ensued in order for it to qualify for this year's Oscars, but more importantly, to serve as a reminder of the power of the press as a reliable bastion of truth. The film is a lacerating broadside regarding the current state of media mistrust, a reminder that freedom of the press is more important than ever in this era of "fake news."

Curiously, Spielberg initially takes his time as the film gets off to a rather slow start. Granted, a great deal of background must be covered before the meat of the matter takes center stage. With Spielberg at the helm, as well as Meryl Streep as Washington Post owner Kay Graham and Tom Hanks as the paper's lead editor Ben Bradlee, we know we're in good hands, and their past work earns them the right to ask for a bit of patience on the viewer's part. It pays off in the end.

Having seen government adviser Daniel Ellsburg (Matthew Rhys) leak the Pentagon Papers — a study of the United States' involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) — to the New York Times and seeing their efforts to publish them in their entirety stymied by a cease-and-desist order from the Justice Department, the movie arrives at its thematic center.

Convincing his old colleague Ellsburg to turn over the papers to him, Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) plops them in Bradlee's lap, and the fireworks begin.

While his instinct is to publish the documents, the fact that he and his boss may go to jail and the Post may cease publication in the process is a real possibility. Graham is obviously hesitant to follow his lead as her financial advisers are warning her against it, fearing that potential new investors will be scared off; the fear of staining her father's legacy preys on her mind as well, as he began the paper, giving it to her husband before she took control herself after his suicide.

Spielberg's best instincts kick in once the question of whether to publish or not becomes the focus. Few are better than he is as far as moving the camera to inject energy into a common conversation while the rapid pacing of these moments between the actors conveys the sense of urgency and importance of the matter at hand. As lawyers, financiers, family members and government employees weigh in on what Graham should do, Spielberg has effectively heightened interest in the matter so that it makes the publisher's final decision have the impact it deserves.

Hanks does a good job here, though there are times when you catch him giving us a Perry White imitation rather than a newspaper man that bleeds ink. Odenkirk makes the most of his moments, standing out amid a strong supporting cast that includes Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson, David Cross, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford and Carrie Coon. They all bring their A game, but as is often the case in any film she's in, this is Streep's show. It's an old saw to say that she's brilliant, so I won't bother to here. However, she makes us feels Graham's anguish, and her ability to show us this woman's gradual transformation that leads to her deciding to publish is remarkable.

Also, the film suffers from Spielberg's trademark heavy-handed approach during its third act. Not trusting that the story itself has enough of a dramatic impact, the director errs in trying to so obviously manipulate the viewer.

Still, the power of this tale and the timing of its release make "The Post" necessary viewing.

'The Post' (★★★ out of four)

Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Dave Cross, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Allison Brie, Carrie Coon and, Jesse Plemmons.

Directed by Steven Spielberg; produced by Kristie Krieger and Amy Pascal; screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer.

A 20th Century-Fox Pictures release. 115 minutes. Rated PG-13 (language and brief war violence). At AMC Champaign 13, AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16 IMAX.

Also new in theaters

Ponderous "Last Key" crawls toward scares. (★★ out of four). Defying the notion that crisp pacing is essential to the success of any movie, particularly a horror film, "Insidious: The Last Key" meanders along without a care in the world, seemingly caring not a whit as to whether it engages its audience or not.

Directing for only the second time, Adam Rotel employs no sense of urgency in telling this flimsy tale, inviting tedium rather than terror in this latest entry in a franchise that has overstayed its welcome.

Psychic Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), the savior in the first two films in the series and the focal point of the part-three prequel, is back again with a story that leads directly into 2010's "Insidious." (Yeah, it's a bit of a confused timeline, but you soon come to realize keeping all of this straight is of little importance.) Haunted by dreams about her troubled childhood, she gets a call from one Ted Garza (Kirk Acevedo), a desperate man who just happens to live in the house she grew up in ...which just happens to be a house on the grounds of a penitentiary ... which just happens to be the location where many poor inmates were killed or tortured.

Obviously, nothing subtle in the script by Leigh Whannell, who has penned each episode in this saga; yet better films have been built on less. No, the problem is that it takes nearly 40 minutes to dispense with this basic set-up, and none of it is done with a sense of energy.

That's too bad, because once Whannell lets the other shoe drop and the real horror of this troubled house is revealed, it's inspired and quite horrific.

Credit Robital and cinematographer Toby Oliver for creating a genuinely frightening tone for the film. Of particular note are sequences set in the haunted home with the abandoned penitentiary looming behind it, as well as moments that occur in the bowels of the building where Rainier makes a gruesome discovery. Look and mood is spot on here, and while these moments are playing out, you can't help but wish Whannell's script were of higher quality.

Like most series of this nature, the "Insidious" movies are suffering from the law of diminishing returns. While there was nothing remarkably original about any of these movies, the first two were done with panache and a degree of enthusiasm that made them seem fresh.

Unfortunately, "The Last Key" is a ponderous affair laboring under the specter of these better efforts.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on ­Twitter (@ckoplinski). He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

Topics (1):Film