After Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) witnesses Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) lie to the press about the chances of winning the Vietnam War, he's spurred into action, making copies of what came to be known as The Pentagon Papers. In Washington, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) is attempting to shepherd the newspaper her father had entrusted to her late husband Philip onto the New York Stock Exchange. When the New York Times scooped them by publishing some of Ellsberg's Top Secret documents, then ceased under legal threat by the White House, Graham anxiously mulled the decision of putting her family legacy and personal political friendships on the line by championing freedom of the press in "The Post."
Director Steven Spielberg sure knows how to capture the zeitgeist. There's nothing subtle about the First Amendment message behind "The Post," but to have also caught wing on the #MeToo's feminist uprising against patriarchal power proves either great foresight or amazing luck. This fast moving tale of how one woman's brave move was not only supported by the Supreme Court but helped take down a corrupt administration boasts an enviable ensemble as well as the lighter, more humorous approach to history Spielberg unveiled with "Lincoln."
That's not to say "The Post" is a comedy, but it's light on its feet, newsroom banter full of wit. Liz Hannah and Josh Singer's screenplay isn't about finding the story, as, say in "All the President's Men," the Washington Post movie that didn't feature Graham at all, or Singer's own "Spotlight." Instead, this is about editor Ben Bradlee's (Tom Hanks) competitive need to suss out just what The Times has, get his own hands on it, then convince his publisher to print it as she mulls potential consequences. Amusingly, things start off with the dilemma of how to cover Julie Nixon's wedding, Post reporter Judith Martin (Jessie Mueller, TV's 'The Family') having gotten the paper banned after crashing Tricia's. (Ironically, their coverage of that event comprises their front page the same day the Times breaks Ellsberg's Top Secrets.)
The Graham we meet is a woman used to taking a back seat, who retires from a dinner party table for men to smoke and drink. She may have socialized with the Kennedy and Johnson White Houses and count Robert McNamara among her dearest friends, but she lacks the confidence to stand up to men who refuse to take her seriously, despite her obvious intelligence. Streep is at the very top of her game here, a wealthy society woman loyal to friends and the family business who finds the gumption to jeopardize both to become a formidable publisher. We can see the worry, the pros wrestling with the cons, as Graham takes phone calls from Bradlee while entertaining McNamara. It is the decades long, egregious nature of the government's lies which tip the scales, Streep's Graham informing Greenwood's Secretary of Defense that he essentially allowed her son to die in battle under false pretenses, a sin far greater than disloyalty. When she speaks truth to power, the power of her words cannot be dismissed.
Hanks may not look and sound like Bradlee the way Jason Robards did, but his puckish, energetic performance is great counter balance to Streep's regal refinement. If her world is hushed elegance and the private dining rooms where they hold their morning meetings, his is noisy chaos and overflowing ashtrays. Reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk, the cream of the supporting crop) surreptitiously makes contact with Ellsberg, a former colleague, returning to Bradlee's house with 4,000 unnumbered pages. A crew sets to work connecting the dots as Tony Bradlee (Sarah Paulson) serves sandwiches. Just when you've begun to wonder why an actress of Paulson's talent is playing the 'little woman,' she has her moment, laying out for her husband just how much Graham has at stake, how much bravery he's requiring of her. And back them Graham does, alarming IPO orchestrator Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford as a fictional composite character) while The Post's Chairman of the Board Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts) smiles his consent. The supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches with this year's ubiquitous Michael Stuhlbarg portraying NYT publisher Abe Rosenthal, Carrie Coon Post reporter Meg Greenfield, Alison Brie Graham's daughter, Jesse Plemons Post legal counsel Roger Clark and David Cross as Post managing editor Howard Simons.
The period production is exemplary (note that vintage Thom McAn shoe box holding Pentagon Papers!), costume designer Ann Roth's ("Ricki and the Flash") choices a nostalgic trip of 70's prints and styles. Janusz Kaminski frames the action in Spielberg's usual boxy aspect ratio and on 35mm to reflect the past. John Williams' subtly incorporates the beats of typewriter keys and return bells in a score that suggests the thriller genre.
"The Post" reminds us of just why America's Founding Fathers installed so many checks and balances into our democracy, the press who've irritated so many executives in chief a 'necessary evil.' But one wonders if Spielberg's rousing tale of democracy in action is naive reassurance or depressing nostalgia.
When we think about the reign of Richard Nixon, our 37th president, the word “Watergate” dominates those thoughts. Director Steven Spielberg delves into a slightly earlier scandal that wracked the administration with the publication of the infamous and secret Pentagon Papers and the national controversy they spurred in “The Post.”
With our current president in full “fake news” mode, “The Post” is a timely essay on the state and survival of the free press in the United States. Spielberg and writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (“Spotlight (2015)”) take their subject matter – the secret study instituted by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1967 to define the 30 year history of US involvement in Vietnam – and bring it to fresh light.
Old guys, like me, remember well the national furor created when the New York Times published three articles quoting the documents leaked by Rand Corp analyst Daniel Ellsberg to NYT reporter Neil Sheehan. The ensuing brouhaha forced a controversy that went all the way to the US Supreme Court.
Spielberg and company, in “The Post,” pick up the story after the leak and the subsequent lawsuit against the New York Times. Meryl Streep stars as Katherine Graham, the first woman to be the publisher of a major newspaper, who must make the decision, with her editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), to continue the publication of the Papers at a time when the future of the Washington Post hanged in the balance.
While Streep and Hanks are the “stars” of “The Post,” the film is a true and masterful ensemble effort that gives all the players in the story their proper shrift. The stars are first among equals and the number and depth of the character performances represent on of the best of the year. (Someday, the Academy will finally acknowledge the category of Ensemble Cast…maybe.)
“The Post” is not Steven Spielberg’s best film to date but it is a solidly constructed historical drama about a real-life event in the battle for freedom of the press and speech. I give it a B+.
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