The miraculous alchemy of The Post lies in how great it can be, despite also being all of the terrible things one might prejudge it for. It is, for starters, one of the most unabashedly Oscarbaity films to come out in a season that has been almost entirely devoid of traditional Oscarbait. And it is wildly self-congratulatory about being the very first major studio release to be self-consciously and in its entirety A Film Of The Trump Presidency. Since it is a Steven Spielberg film made in the 21st Century, it's no fair guessing that it has a terrible final scene (one that is terrible in almost exactly the same way as the final scene of Lincoln, for the record). The very rushed production schedule (pre-production, production, post-production, and an awards-qualifying release, all while Spielberg's Ready Player One was getting its visual effects done) is visible in some of the blocking, and much of the lighting and editing; one shudders to imagine how much more visible it might have been without all-time pros leading the crew, like cinematographer Janusz KamiΕ„ski and editor Michael Kahn (working here alongside Sarah Broshar), both of whom have been working with Spielberg for decades. And there are things that I wouldn't have even expected to be problems: Liz Hannah and Josh Singer's screenplay makes some awfully big assumptions about how much a 2017 audience is likely to know about the matter of the Pentagon Papers, and the business operations of the Washington Post in 1971 (if the name "Ben Bradlee" has no inherent meaning to you, anticipate a confusing opening 30 minutes). It also is the latest in a chain of movie to utterly fail Sarah Paulson, given a nothing role of the concerned wife: her biggest scene is a deadly "let me recite the film's message to you, in case it's been too subtle" bit near the end, and her second biggest scene is handing out sandwiches.

All of these things are true, and yet The Post is absolutely dazzling. It is, among other things, a continuation of the 2010s project of Spielberg and his regular production crew, in which they look to different classical cinematic forms to emulate and burnish like fine gemstones. In this case, it's the noble legacy of the newspaper picture, those wonderful stories dating back to the absolute dawn of sound cinema, in which dogged professionals are so hellbent on getting the story that they sometimes have to stop and remind themselves that they're also doing a great public good. Specifically, The Post so obviously looks at two specific newspaper pictures that I feel it's a little cheap of me to point them out: this is nothing so much as the hybridization of the political thriller All the President's Men (to which this film essentially acts as prequel; that awful final scene I mentioned is basically the comic book movie pseudocliffhanger leading into Alan J. Pakula's 1976 masterpiece) with the Hawksian rapid-fire overlapping dialogue of His Girl Friday.

Stylistically, the film is neither of those; despite some rumblings to the contrary, it's also not a throwback to the style of the 1970s, outside of a handful of nice zooms. It is a very nice piece of work, though, punctuating the action with a good number of very elaborate tracking shots through the Post's visually iconic newsroom, or through the tony houses of the D.C. elite (there's nothing remotely showy about Rick Carter's production design, but he's still done some of the best work of the year here, telling us keenly important things about the two main characters just by the way their homes look). It's one of the least apparently Spielbergian films Spielberg has ever made - KamiΕ„ski isn't even resting on that "shafts of light in dim, dusty rooms" trick he's been riding so hard ever since War of the Worlds in 2005 - but it's the work of a team of hugely competent craftspeople, who can make even the most basic spaces and events hum with cinematic energy. The film has a five-way phone conversation that's so tense and thrilling that I could feel my legs twitching, and it nearly tops the texting sequence in Personal Shopper as the year's finest telecommunications-based thriller setpiece. And there are a few Spielberg touches: the boyish awe at the huge room where the Post is printed, all conveyor belts and merrily whirring machines, is a clear example, and so is the tiny little delight at the building-shaking rattle of those machines starting up.

The film's plot - I should have mentioned this by now. So this guy named Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), having spent some time as an analyst in Vietnam (the opening sequence in that country, brief as it is, makes me desperate for another Spielberg war movie before he finally retires), has decided that it's time to stick his nose in. Fortunately for him, he has a very high level of security clearance, and is able to steal, photocopy, and replace some 7000 pages of documents proving that every president since Truman has been deliberately lying to the American people about getting the U.S. involved in the political affairs of Southeast Asia, and lying as well about how very fucked the U.S. military would be. With the documents in hand, it's just a matter of getting them published. And the paper of papers, The New York Times, is the best home for it, though the NYT only gets halfway through its promised series before the government intercedes, claiming national security.

Enter the Post, whose editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is hellbent on establishing the paper's reputation with a major story like the Pentagon Papers; whose senior reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) is pretty sure from the moment that the story breaks that Ellsberg, with whom he once worked, is responsible for the leak; and whose publisher, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) is deeply concerned about trying to get the paper some much-needed capital by making a public stock offering, and who is still aware that everybody thinks she's a flake because she's a woman (and Graham has evidently absorbed a lot of this thinking herself), and who is close personal friends with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), one of the architects of the country's Vietnam policy, and who stands to be humiliated if the rest of the papers come out. A morality play ensues, with Bradlee trying to bully, cajole, convince, and beg Graham into publishing the documents, even at the risk of the both of them going to prison and the paper Graham's father owned being lost forever. Along with some good old-fashioned white-knuckle thrills about how reporters go about doing their job.

It's all pretty fucking fun and exciting stuff, amplified by a terrific cast - Hanks is maybe slightly too inconsistent in how hammy he wants to be, but I can't think of a single complaint to make about any other member of the overstuffed cast (Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, and David Cross are also in there somewhere). Streep especially: faced with the best project she's been attached to since, good Christ, probably 2002's Adaptation., she obliges with her most controlled, simple, and effective performance since at least 2006's The Devil Wears Prada.

It could, definitely be tighter; name a recent Spielberg movie that couldn't. It could certainly pull its head out of its ass, and realise that it's much better at being a newspaper thriller than a message movie about the role of women in a changing society; frankly, it's even better as a story about Katharine Graham, pioneer of equality, when it's focusing just on the nuts and bolts of getting a paper cranked out. And a bit more time in pre-production would have surely helped. All that being said, The Post is a propulsive, hugely watchable movie, and it has enough of a sense of society, politics, and the course of human history to feel smart in addition to feeling fun. It's obviously no All the President's Men, because nothing conceivably could be, but it comes way the hell closer during its best moments (that phone conversation; Bagdikian chasing down Ellsberg, a fine little bit of cross-cutting; the conversations between Graham and Bradlee that descend into overlapping dialogue) than I would have ever believed based on its whiffy trailers.