Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk
Rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence
1 hr. 56 mins.
We take for granted the adversarial relationship that exists these days between the press and the White House. Especially since the election of Donald Trump, there are daily headlines being run by The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other media outlets about the behavior, investigations and the daily sniping that goes on between the press and the president.
For director Steven Spielberg, The Post makes today’s Washington politics feel like déjà vu. A suspect presidency. Media under fire for political reporting. If this sounds familiar, it should. The Post reminds us that powerful people don’t willingly reveal their stories and that the existence of a free press, messy as it can be, is a necessary tool for political accountability.
In the 1960s, the Washington Post was a smaller regional newspaper owned by publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep). Graham was a newspaper novice, a well-known socialite and homemaker who had never dreamed she would be a businesswoman. (She found herself at the helm of the newspaper — originally purchased by her father, Eugene Meyer, in 1933 — after her husband, Post publisher Philip Graham, committed suicide in 1963.)
Graham’s editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), was trying to give the paper more of an edge. He was ruthless in that regard, even resorting to sending interns to The New York Times as spies.
In June 1971, The New York Times began to publish part of a secret study commissioned by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). The leak came via Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), who had served from 1964 to 1965 as an aide to former Assistant Secretary of Defense John T. McNaughton. Ellsberg himself had worked on the study for several months in 1967 and had smuggled it out of RAND Corporation in 1969.
Bradlee fiercely searched for The Times’s source, but it was assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) who tracked down Ellsberg and secured the 4,000 pages — which became known as the Pentagon Papers — that Ellsberg had copied and stolen from RAND and the Pentagon.
Nixon brought the full legal force of the U.S. government down on both The Times and The Post to stop them from publishing the papers. For Graham and Bradlee, it was a decision of legality and conscience whether to publish the documents. Graham, whose legal advisers and board vehemently opposed the idea, was left with the final decision.
There is always a problem with a story of this sort. You already know what happened historically. In The Post, the key point is “why?” Can the writers and the director give us enough interesting back story? Can the actors convince us of the motives and the tension in their decisions?
In The Post, the answer to this is yes and no. The film is well-acted, but not always well-written, and the ending feels like a Western, with the bad guys foiled and the good guys striding off into the newspaper sunrise.
At heart, The Post feels like a feminist film, with the story focused on Graham’s transition from Washington socialite to hard-nosed newspaper publisher. Streep, always a master of character, manages to show us this transition without overplaying her hand. Hanks matches her stride for stride with Bradlee growling as a street brawler playing editor.
The Post is not Spielberg’s best film. Parts of it feel stiff and preachy, but it has enough good stuff in it to stay interesting, especially if you’re from the 1970s and lived through Nixon’s shenanigans. It’s a clever ploy to use his own White House tapes as part of the dialogue.
While this could have been a more thoughtful film, what’s here is worth watching. The Post is a reminder that power deserves confrontation. Revolution is always in flux. Democracy is an idea. Having the two jostle together is a constant exercise in political tension. Sometimes it falls to the writer and the publisher to remind us that truth depends on the written word and that persistence, even pugnaciousness, is necessary to keep that word exposed to the light.