Film Review: The Post

by Carrie Kahn on December 22, 2017

Spielberg brilliantly brings First Amendment showdown to life 

Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) weigh big decisions for their paper.

“We can’t have the administration dictate our coverage just because they don’t like what we printed about them in the newspaper,” Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) tells Post owner and publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) in director Steven Spielberg’s fine new film The Post. A paean to journalism that is still exceedingly relevant today, Spielberg’s story of the Post’s battle to publish the confidential Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s succeeds on a number of levels, making it one of the best pictures of the year, and giving it a rightful place in the canon of great journalism movies.

The film, of course, will most likely be compared to All the President’s Men, since it involves the same players, the same paper, and the same presidency. But co-writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (who also penned Spotlight, another great newspapering story) bring a unique sensibility and a fresh feel to their dramatization of the publication of the so-called Pentagon Papers, the abbreviated name for the Dept. of Defense-commissioned study of U.S.-Vietnam relations that was officially titled “United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense.” Initially leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) a former Rand Corporation employee “turned dove” as Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) puts it, the Papers chronicled how, as far back as 1965, the U.S. government knew the Vietnam War was failing, but still kept sending young men to fight; 70% of the reason to stay in the War, the report detailed, was to avoid the humiliation of defeat.

Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) brings precious cargo back to Washington.

Such revelations were shocking at the time, and the Nixon White House succeeded in issuing a federal court injunction against the Times to cease publication of the documents. When the Post also was able to obtain copies of the papers (Bagdikian knew Ellsberg from their time at Rand together), its management had to decide whether to risk everything – including a withdraw of investors from an upcoming initial public offering, and possible jail time for Bradlee and Graham – or to uphold the First Amendment and the paper’s journalistic duty to inform the public. The case quickly wound its way up to the Supreme Court, and The Post spends the majority of its time following the different Post players as they grapple with their decision to publish the documents before the Court hands down its ruling.

The story is thus inherently filled with drama, and Spielberg tells it masterfully, with help from his A-list cast. Though Hanks looks nothing like the real Bradlee (viewers with a keen interest should also check out the recent HBO documentary The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee), Hanks captures Bradlee’s impatience, his competitive spirit (Bradlee was anxious to garner a national reputation for the Post, which, at the time, was considered a “local” DC paper), and his fundamental belief in the justness of his cause. Streep, however, has the more complex role; Graham, who had never held a job outside the home before, took over running the paper when her husband died, and, surrounded by men in an era when powerful women were hardly the norm, she faced pervasive sexism that chipped away at her confidence. A scene in which she’s at home on the phone, making the decision to publish or not, with advice coming to her from mansplaining men on all sides, is a powerful testament to one woman’s courage and sense of self. Streep, with just her tone of voice and facial movements, lets us see the reeling thoughts and feelings in Graham’s head. It’s brilliant work, and I’m guessing will be the clip played at the Oscars when Streep picks up yet another deserved Best Actress nomination.

The staff at the Post learn of a key Supreme Court decision.

The picture, then, works as a gripping legal thriller, a tour de force old fashioned newspaper yarn, a portrait of a woman’s bravery in a Mad Men-esque era of rampant sexism, and, perhaps most importantly, as a rebuke of today’s administration, which berates the press in much the same way Nixon did. Spielberg wisely doesn’t cast an actor to play Nixon; instead, Spielberg uses shadowy long shots through a White House window to show Nixon on the phone, and over those images we hear the actual recordings of Nixon talking about the Post staff, the Papers, and the Court case. It’s an effective technique, and, even as Nixon’s words are chilling and unbelievable, they carry a depressing echo of similar things being said today by the current administration.

In New York Times Co. vs. United States (1971), the deciding case on the legality of publishing the classified documents, Justice Hugo Black opined, “In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors… In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam War, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.” And now Spielberg here has done precisely what great filmmakers can do: he’s brought a historic story to life, and turned a spotlight on it so that we can both remember it, and — hopefully — never again repeat it.

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The Post opens in limited release nationwide today, and will open in the Bay Area on January 5th.

 

 

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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