The Post (Steven Spielberg, 2017) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Join me, dear moviegoer, on a journey back in time to when the fourth estate brought down a presidency through the exercise of its craft. Believers in their positions as one of the essential pillars of a democracy, journalists risked their careers by telling the truth, no matter the cost. Attacked and disparaged by the subject of their investigative campaign, they persevered, and taught the world the limits to which power could be abused in these United States of America. Now such efforts are dismissed as “fake news.” Excuse me, #fakenews (or is that #FAKENEWS?). Sad!
I refer to the early 1970s, to be specific, when reporters at first The New York Times and then The Washington Post uncovered uncomfortable truths about the lies told by our government over the course of 30 years in Vietnam. The Washington Post was at that time but a minor, provincial cousin to the mighty New York Times, and therefore hungry for a scoop that would move it into the major leagues. Along came military analyst Daniel Ellsberg and his top-secret Pentagon Papers, stolen documents which revealed the depths of official misinformation about the ongoing Vietnam War. The Washington Post pounced and published. Their triumph – journalistic and legal, winning a court case against the Nixon administration – paved the way for their even more famous coverage of the Watergate scandal, and showed our leaders that American journalists would not be cowed. Lessons for our time? Let’s hope so.
Thanks to All the President’s Men – both the 1974 book and the 1976 movie – we know quite a great deal about Watergate and its aftermath (a knowledge added to by a recent film about Mark Felt, aka “Deep Throat,” or the mole within the FBI who gave information to The Washington Post reporters). We know less about the Pentagon Papers. Imagine, then, Steven Spielberg’s new movie The Post as a prequel of sorts. Mostly set two years earlier, in 1971, the film begins in 1966, with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys, FX’s The Americans) in the middle of a firefight in Vietnam. Later, on a plane with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood, Meek’s Cutoff), Ellsberg is visibly disgusted when his critical assessment of the situation is given a positive spin by the boss. Next we see him, Ellsberg is photocopying restricted files.
Cut to 1971, as Katharine Graham – or “Kay,” as her friends call her – owner and publisher of The Washington Post, is preparing to take the company public. As played by a marvelous Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), Graham is smart as a whip, but lacks confidence about her place in a man’s world. We learn that the paper, once owned by her father, was handed over to her husband, who later killed himself, leaving her in charge, competent if unsure of herself. Going public poses risks, though the potential rewards are great, and the male members of the paper’s board grow increasingly nervous as Graham decides to follow the lead of her editor, Ben Bradlee (an excellent Tom Hanks, Sully), in his quest to make The Washington Post count for something. Re-enter Ellsberg and his stolen documents.
The movie plays like a brilliant procedural of the once-vibrant newspaper business, where information is gathered, vetted and then, if wills and stomachs remain strong, published. Nixon, though not personally implicated in the Pentagon Papers, issues, through his Attorney General, an injunction against both The New York Times and The Washington Post to prevent the exposure of secrets, believing that it sets a precedent which could lead to more challenges to power (something he was right to fear). Though rivals, the two papers cooperate in their defense, understanding that the game is bigger than either of them.
Spielberg loves stories about hubris and its consequences – witness Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, among some; or plucky individuals standing up to oppressive systems – witness E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Schindler’s List, Minority Report and Bridge of Spies, among others. In The Post, he combines these two themes into one forceful narrative where underdogs strike back and expose the hypocrisy of authority. Working off a strong script by Liz Hannah (her first feature screenplay) and Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Fifth Estate), Spielberg offers a multilayered tale where not only The Washington Post rises to the occasion, but so does Kay Graham, finally claiming her rightful place at the top, in a nice feminist twist. As one set of leaders topples, another rises.
It is not entirely perfect, however. Spielberg, for all his strengths, has too often a tendency to insert at least one scene where a major character tells us the message of the film. One such moment occurs between Graham and her daughter Lally (Alison Brie, Sleeping with Other People), where Streep explains the importance of her actions to the cause of women’s rights. Yes, what she says is true; it’s also completely unnecessary, since the rest of the movie makes this abundantly clear. Still, barring those lapses in judgement, The Post is otherwise terrific, filled with sharp banter and great performances from a variety of actors in roles large and small, Tracy Letts (The Lovers), Bob Odenkirk (Nebraska), Sarah Paulson (Carol) and Michael Stuhlbarg (Trumbo) among them. See it for a lesson in what freedom of the press entails, and a call to action to change the world of today. Make America great again, indeed!