Overview: The story of The Washington Post’s effort to publish the Pentagon Papers, a trove of classified documents that the U.S. government wanted kept under wraps. DreamWorks; 2017; Rated PG-13; 115 minutes.
Democracy Dies in Darkness: There’s no question that The Post is a film that celebrates and champions the importance of a free press to a democracy. It has a clear point of view, which is emboldened by the current political climate hovering over the world inhabiting the theaters it arrives in. But it’s a Steven Spielberg movie through and through. This stage of Spielberg’s career—say, since 2005’s Munich—sees Spielberg consistently tackling stories about people in dogged pursuit of a goal. In Munich, the box-checking series of revenge assassinations; in Lincoln, the ending of slavery; in Bridge of Spies, due process for all. In all of these films, the point is sort of obvious, and the narrative never goes too long without finding ways to remind you of the lesson. This is no knock against it—rather, it’s a testament to the filmmaker’s continued ability to tell broadly entertaining stories, with excellent craft and artistic touch, that connect the past to the present.
The Post continues in this vein. In the movie, the staff of the Washington Post is trying to get their hands on—and publish—what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, a trove of classified government documents showing that, for decades across multiple administrations from both political parties, the government lied to the public about the war in Vietnam. We primarily follow the two main leaders of the paper—the Executive Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and the paper’s owner/publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep). It’s in the latter, particularly, where we find one of the more nuanced, fascinating, and engaging characters in a Spielberg drama in a long time. Maybe ever?
A Woman Apart: It doesn’t hurt that Graham is portrayed here by one of our greatest living actors, and Streep straight up brings it. Writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer deserve credit for deftly crafting a dynamic character and a convincing arc. Early in the film, we see Graham preparing for an important meeting with the Post’s board, as the paper is about to go public. When the time comes at the meeting for Graham to make her mark, she freezes up, causing Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts, one of the Supporting Actor MVPs of 2017) to step in. Graham is a woman who is obviously somewhat out of her depth, trying her best to overcome her own shortcomings as well as a world that won’t quite take women seriously. What complicates matters for Graham is when the rash of damning stories about the government’s handling of the war starts emerging—she is a true elite, a socialite who has a close personal relationship with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood).
This, of course, presents a pretty damning conflict of interest. One of Graham’s selling points to investors is that quality drives profitability, and what Bradlee and the reporters at the Post know is that in their game, quality means getting the big, national stories and getting them right. So when Graham mentions to Bradlee that McNamara is going through a lot and suggests maybe the paper pull its punch back, we see not just a conflict between two professionals, but between a woman and herself. It’s all in Streep’s face, in how she intonates, in the power of a brief pause while talking. It’s also one of the movie’s most important scenes because of what Graham does in response to Bradlee’s indignance (and, in a sneaky smart way, the audience’s). She demands Bradlee think about his own cushy relationship with “Jack” Kennedy and how that might have altered his job covering a President he personally liked. Holding power accountable can’t be subjective.
All The News That’s Fit to Print: The Post works as a character study, but it also succeeds as a forward-motion work drama thanks much to its ridiculously deep and talented supporting ensemble. The ball is shared well. Bob Odenkirk’s Ben Bagdikian has the newsroom’s biggest lead but agonizes over protecting the identity of his source as legal questions start arising, and Odenkirk succeeds at exuding well-worn struggle. Matthew Rhys is superb, particularly physically, as the initial leaker Daniel Ellsberg. Sarah Paulson, as is her wont, squeezes everything possible out of what she’s given, in this case the concerned wife role, while Carrie Coon shines as another lone woman surrounded by men. Bradley Whitford and Jesse Plemons are perfectly cast, respectively, as a meek villain Post board member and an overwhelmed and skeptical legal counsel. The Post is exhilarating when it moves at the frenetic pace that the journalists do when when their work, careers, and in some cases, lives are at stake. Spielberg’s signature camera movement (working again with longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski) is effective, starting us in one end of the crowded, messy newsroom to the other as bodies and stacks of paper zoom in and out of frame. The movie becomes a bit stodgy when it eschews that pace to have the characters grandstand about why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s to the credit of Hanks and Streep that the film doesn’t collapse under the weight of these asides. Spielberg often smartly keeps the camera on both for long stretches of time, letting their charisma solidify their characters’ convictions.
The Elite Underdogs: What may irk some people about The Post is that it is very clearly an underdog story. Both Kay Graham and The Washington Post are painted at the outset as fighting to survive. They were: the Post did vault itself from local paper to national prominence on the back of its reporting of the Pentagon Papers and, as the film deftly foreshadows, the Watergate break in, and Graham was trying to keep the struggling paper solvent. But particularly when it comes to Graham, some may find it difficult to sympathize with someone who struggled with the decision to tell the truth initially in part because of her proximity to the liars. She eventually makes the correct decision, and for the right reasons, at great risk, but the underdog and savior act might come off as a bit too reverential.
Still, The Post is entertaining, well-crafted and, yes, timely and affirming. It comes to us at a time when the free press is particularly under attack. In The Post, we hear the voice of one president rail in private against the investigative papers whom he deems the enemy. The current President does so in the wide open, often to rapturous applause. As Bradlee states towards the end of the film, the press isn’t always going to get it right. But it needs to keep going.
Overall: Steven Spielberg delivers another strong, historic-but-timely effort. Meryl Streep shines as a complicated, fascinating person at the center of a crucial moment in American democracy, and the deep supporting cast brings a true group effort to life.