The freedom of the press is under attack. You know. I know it. The whole world knows it. Every day, we hear the term “fake news,” and many laugh it off as just another buzz-word we’ve become accustomed to, in a post-Trump world. But any assault on the First Amendment constitutional right guaranteeing the press the ability to speak freely is a dangerous slope. Never has a film like The Post been more needed than right now to highlight why. Enter director Steven Spielberg, armed with an inspiring and relevant narrative, and an impeccable ensemble cast, led by Academy Award-winners Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Yes, this is the most Oscar bait film of the season.
Rushed into production last year, for painfully obvious reasons, The Post is based on the true story of the quest to publish the controversial “Pentagon Papers,” which exposed the truth behind the failing Vietnam War. In 1967, Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) commissioned a secret study to document America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam, dating back to the Truman administration.
The study found a systemic and consistent history of U.S. interference in Vietnam’s political climate, including rigging elections to America’s benefit. Most damning of all, it conclusively showed the Johnson and Nixon administrations were openly lying to the American public about the prospects of winning the Vietnam War, while still sending further American troops to be slaughtered.
After witnessing McNamara spin the truth to the media about the progress of the war effort, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a contributor to the report and employee of the RAND Corporation, a government think tank, finds himself disillusioned. Risking treason, Ellsberg spends months sneaking segments of the report out of the RAND office to photocopy, and subsequently leak to reporter Neil Sheehan (Justin Swain) of The New York Times.
Over at the “small local paper” The Washington Post, reporter Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) can sense something big is coming, after noticing Sheehan hasn’t published an article in three months. His intuition is right, and The New York Times publishes excerpts from the Vietnam report on June 13, 1971, causing a huge controversy, and a scathing response from the Nixon administration. When Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell successfully block the Times from publishing any further articles regarding the leaked papers, it falls to Bradlee and his team, led by assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian (a scene-stealign Bob Odenkirk), to continue to fight.
The decision to risk Nixon’s wrath and publish further excerpts from the report falls to Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the Post’s recently-appointed publisher, who inherited the role after her husband’s suicide. Graham, more experienced in throwing lavish dinner parties than making tough journalistic decisions, finds herself conflicted. One of her closest friends and frequent dinner guests is none other than Robert McNamara. Complicating matters further, Graham is also overseeing the Post going public on the stock exchange, and a legal scandal of the magnitude Bradlee is proposing could render the shares worthless, and destroy the paper for good.
What follows is an epic moral and ethical fight between doing what is right and doing what is easy. The film questions an ideal once held quite dear to the hearts of journalists. In this era, publishers and politicians regarded themselves as allies and combatants for America. Bradlee once rubbed shoulders with JFK, and, in the process, overlooked the President’s many indiscretions. Graham and her late-husband were frequent guests of President Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, even riding with the pair on Air Force One. With the leak of the shocking papers, it’s clear those days need to come to an end.
At the centre of this battle is the fiery and often tempestuous relationship between Bradlee and Graham. While the pair both clearly have a desperate desire to take the newspaper to new heights, there’s a deep divide on the path needed to take it there. Graham has the heavy weight of expectation on her shoulders. Many see her as just a fortunate heiress, without an “earned” place in publishing. There’s clearly a great chance for her to become a feminist icon, but she struggles with finding the strength to assume her role. Bradlee, meanwhile, is the force of nature atypical with any great journalist, blindly throwing off the serious consequences of his writing in the hunt for a history-making story.
There relationship is wonderfully entertaining and truly enthralling, cemented by the solid performances of Hanks and Streep. Hanks, playing against type, doesn’t quite have the jaded rasp and gravel impertinence that Jason Robards delivered in his Oscar-winning turn as Bradlee in All the President’s Men, but he gives it everything he’s got, and it’s still another of his more remarkable performances. And it’s hard not to feel a small stomach flip at the chance to finally see Hanks performing alongside Streep. The pair’s scenes together are one of the film’s truest highlights. It’s that moment of seeing two of the greatest living actors share the screen that’s impossible not to be dazzled by.
But this is Streep’s film, and, as always, she owns it. Undoubtedly her best performance since The Iron Lady, Streep takes her time to unveil the layers of this character. It’s a true thing of beauty to watch Graham evolve from unsure and insecure heiress to a determined and strong woman of power. Streep finds the crippling internal conflict in Graham, and often displays her inner agony with subtle facial expressions. This is the mastery of Meryl Streep, and, regardless of the groans it will likely elicit, she deserves another Oscar nomination. More so than anything she’s been nominated for lately, that’s for sure.
Surrounding the pair is a terrific supporting ensemble cast, notably Odenkirk as the ruthless reporter Bagdikian, Greenwood as a pitch-perfect McNamara, Rhys as the downcast Ellsberg, and Tracy Letts, in another thankless role, as Fritz Beebe, one of Graham’s most trusted advisers. Sadly, several stellar actors are rather underused, particularly Jesse Plemons as attorney Roger Clark, Sarah Paulson as Bradlee’s supportive wife, Tony, and Alison Brie as Graham’s daughter, Lally.
Even at 70 years-old, Spielberg still delivers the energy and enthusiasm he’s always given us. In the hands of another director, the film could easily become bogged down in exposition. There’s an exhaustive amount of information to lay out here, and, as with most of his films, there are stories within the stories. But Spielberg fires through it with such a cracking pace, and the film never drags. He also manages to deliver his trademark tear-swelling moment, which I won’t spoil, but you’ll know it when it hits you. Spielberg’s choice of visuals is typically sublime, particularly a dazzling sequence from frequent Spielberg collaborator cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, showcasing the fine art that was how a newspaper was once printed. It’s downright glorious.
There are some drawbacks which can’t be overlooked. The film’s very core narrative is rather flawed, in some ways. For all their impressive journalistic exploits in ultimately publishing their controversial articles, one can’t avoid the realisation the Pentagon Papers story was broken by another newspaper, after three months of exhaustive investigation. It essentially landed on the lap of The Washington Post, only after The New York Times was blocked from pursuing the story further. Something feels decidedly off that the reporters on the original story aren’t the ones being celebrated with a big-screen adaptation of their endeavours.
Regardless, The Post is ultimately a tale of journalistic victory which highlights the power of the written word and the importance of the press in protecting the very democracy of the United States. Spielberg can’t help but turn this into a “message movie,” and, occasionally, that can feel a little heavy-handed. But it’s a message we need loud and clear right now. It’s a message which serves as a cautionary tale more relevant than ever. We need to be reminded of the value of the press. The freedom to call out injustice is the very fundamental nature of journalism, and they must be allowed to do so. As Bradlee himself so wisely puts it – “We have to be a check on their power. If we don’t, who will?”