Film Review: The PostSpielberg’s timely Pentagon Papers drama is packed with great performances, none more impressive than Meryl Streep’s vulnerable turn as Katharine Graham, the newspaper heiress who defied the business world and the President himself.
For his most taut and dashing movie since Munich, Steven Spielberg chose an unlikely subject: the publishing of the so-called Pentagon Papers in 1971. It’s not history that Spielberg tends to favor. There are no great battles or monumental court cases; well, there is the latter, but Spielberg whips right past it without pausing for gassy Amistad oratory. The heroes are neither grand orators nor men of action. Instead, they’re mostly disputatious ink-stained wretches in off-the-rack suits mixed in with a few townhouse grandees.
Nevertheless, as uncinematic as reporting (on smudgy old newsprint no less!) about a bunch of Xeroxed studies done by the Rand Corporation would seem to be, the Pentagon Papers did arguably bring an end to the Vietnam War and took a chunk out of President Nixon’s hide just before Watergate brought him down. So, yes, there’s a hell of a movie here. And that’s before one even considers Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.
There are two stories going on in the screenplay deftly concocted by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. The first is the more obvious history lesson. This one tells how military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys)—disenchanted after having Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) agree after a Vietnam visit in 1966 that America wasn’t winning the war, only to see him proclaim victory to the press—decided to leak a classified report on the progress of the war. Once the story breaks in 1971 that the government knew the war was essentially lost years earlier but kept fighting and sacrificing thousands of young Americans to save face, it hits like a tidal wave.
The big problem here for most of the characters in this movie? The New York Times got the story, not The Washington Post. This irks Post editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks), who’s snapping at the chance to take down the Times like a velociraptor going after a T. rex. “Any one else tired of reading the news?” he barks at his newsroom with the kind of gruff belligerence that Hanks hasn’t delivered for years.
Bradlee’s eagerness to transform the Post from a sleepy local paper into a national player sets up the movie’s second and arguably more interesting story. Just as Ellsberg is slipping pages to the Times and Bradlee dispatches his reporters to beat the bush for any crumbs of the story to avoid getting scooped yet again, the paper’s publisher Katharine Graham (Streep) is undergoing her own crisis: the public offering of her previously private family company that runs the paper.
Streep’s Graham is a sublime creation, at once a to-the-manner-born heiress who rules the Georgetown cocktail circuit and a shy and fluttery flibbertigibbet thrown off her game by the dark-suited men telling her how to handle the public offering. The Nixon Administration turns its full fury on the Times, denouncing them for publishing secret documents and threatening legal doom to any other papers that follow their lead; Spielberg uses real audio of Nixon’s telephone rants about the leaks here to frightening effect. The pressure put on Graham by her investors ratchets up to near panic level.
By putting so much stock in Graham’s character, the movie keeps the audience from too easily siding with Bradlee’s charismatic band of pirates. As a woman in a man’s world suspected of being in her job because the predecessor was her deceased husband, Graham has potentially more to lose than anybody in the newsroom. Certainly, there’s a chance they could all go to jail, but the paper is her family and her legacy, not just her job. Although there is never an instant when the rightness of publishing stories about the classified material in the Pentagon Papers is seriously questioned, the movie doesn’t let us imagine it was an easy right choice.
Spielberg plays the skittering triangulating tensions between the government, the Post and Graham’s investors so well it’s hard to imagine anybody checking their watch during this one. He’s helped along not just by the top-line stars, but a deep bench of less glittery talent, ranging from the various reporters played by Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, among others, to Graham’s advisors, particularly Bradley Whitford and Tracy Letts (who is quietly becoming one of Hollywood’s go-to guys for the voice of wry wisdom).
A better thriller than Bridge of Spies and a cracking good journalism movie, The Post just about deserves ranking alongside All the President’s Menand Spotlight (the latter of which Singer co-wrote). It tells a history lesson without much Spielbergian speechifying and even makes a couple of pointed but subtle notes about the glass ceiling; the scene where Graham walks down the Supreme Court steps through a crowd of young women watching her with silent beaming pride is more powerful for being so quietly handled.
There is triumph here, but it’s tempered with a timely reminder about abuses of power. The movie is in part about American journalism finally coming into its own as true investigative bloodhounds. But it also concludes on a sobering note that will remind audiences of their daily reality: a mad President raging into the night.
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