Perhaps the most important journalistic battle in American history gets the Spielberg treatment in The Post, featuring a stellar cast that includes Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.
The film explores The Washington Post’s decision to print the Pentagon Papers on Vietnam in 1971, a move that raised the ire of then-President Richard Nixon, and put the careers of people like paper owner Kay Graham (Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) in major jeopardy. Of course, Hanks isn’t the first movie star to play Bradlee: Jason Robards also played him in All the President’s Men, the classic film that covered the Watergate scandal. Bradlee, who died in 2014, was a journalism giant.
The movie starts in the mid-’60s with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a member of the State Department who is a study for then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) in South Vietnam. Embedded with American troops, Ellsberg sees all sorts of atrocities and is a firsthand witness to the growing failure of American participation in the Vietnam War. His forecast about the war’s outcome is bleak, but McNamara and President Johnson (and three presidents before him) share a rosier—and false—version with the American public.
In 1971, with Nixon in the White House, Hanks and Streep get their first scene together: They’re in a restaurant having breakfast, discussing their big controversy of the day—the White House’s meddling with their ability to cover the wedding of Nixon’s daughter. Bradlee refuses to bend to Nixon’s request to restrict a certain reporter, while Graham wonders what the big deal is. This scene is long, dialogue-rich take—and it’s basically a school in great acting.
Things progress from troubles with weddings to the war, with the unauthorized release of the Pentagon Papers by Ellsberg, and The New York Times printing a story about them. This move gets the Times in trouble with the Nixon administration. Bradlee and his team come into contact with Ellsberg and get the opportunity to go through thousands of pages of classified documents. They have two options: Print a deeper story on the classified documents and face potential treason charges; or bury the story to help preserve the paper, which is going through an initial public stock offering and would likely be harmed by any negative controversy.
History has told us what Graham, Bradlee and their team of reporters did—but that doesn’t make The Post any less thrilling. Spielberg not only uses The Post as an opportunity to put great actors in play; he makes The Post a grand testament to the golden age of print journalism.
It’s not just the risk-taking of editors, owners and journalists that makes The Post such an absorbing piece of history. The mechanics of producing a story for the masses in the 1970s were a little complicated by today’s standards: Journalists seeking leads with rotary phones and pay phones, and hard deadlines that had to be hit because it took a lot of time to actually publish a newspaper each day, play a big part in the storytelling. Spielberg relishes the chance to show a story getting rolled up on typed paper, shot through an internal delivery system to an editor, edited by a man with a pencil, and then placed on a costly template for publication. The sight of massive amounts of paper getting printed and then bound to be taken to the streets is one of Spielberg’s most impressive technical filmmaking feats in years.
The supporting cast includes Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, the legendary TV comedians of Mr. Show. It’s a trip to see them onscreen together in a Spielberg production. Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon and Sarah Paulson round out the cast.
The Post is the best Spielberg offering since Munich, bringing to an end one of the weaker stretches in his career that included the lackluster Lincoln, Bridge of Spies and The BFG. It’s an impressively staged account of a pivotal moment in our history—at a time when the freedom of the press is again being actively challenged by a sitting president.
The Post is playing at theaters across the valley.