To write a review of a film about a newspaper is quite possibly as meta as it gets. But regardless of journalistic bias, Steven Spielberg’s The Post is objectively and genuinely successful in what it sets out to do.
In an era of “Fake News,” Twitter feuds and a president who only recently attempted to shut down the release of an unflattering book about his own presidency, it is no wonder that The Post was rushed into production with a turnaround time of only nine months. On one level, it is simply a historical film, narrating a challenge to the free press in 1971, but on another, its parallels to today’s political climate cannot be ignored and are, in fact, quite intentional. Whether this decision to rush the movie to meet a certain cultural moment was the correct one is debatable; some moments in the film cannot help but seem a bit forced, as if Spielberg is telling the viewer to feel a certain way. Nevertheless, The Post is worth a watch, if only for the shining cast and distressingly familiar message.
The film centers on the momentous decision behind The Washington Post’s 1971 publication of the top-secret Pentagon Papers and the complex chain of events leading up to it. Meryl Streep plays the legendary publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham, and Tom Hanks stars as Ben Bradlee, a seasoned editor in the newsroom who often clashes with her. Graham is in the midst of taking the paper public, meaning she has to answer to a board of directors displeased with the publishing of government secrets. Graham, in turn, has to reconcile the agenda of the newspaper and journalism in general with the friendships she has developed over the years with high-ranking government officials, namely Defense Secretary Robert “Bob” McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the man at the center of it all.
The situation began years prior, when military analyst turned activist Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) smuggled out thousands of pages on the history of Vietnam with incendiary information that the American government had been feeding lies to the masses for years. Six years later, The New York Times is the first to reveal a snippet of this truth. The courts rules that the Times cannot publish any more of these documents or the information found therein – the first assault on free press. Meanwhile, back in the newsroom, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odendirk) feverishly chases down sources, trying to get his hands on the Papers for the Post.
Eventually, Ellsberg, the Times’ source, brings them to Bradlee’s home, which morphs into a chaotic semblance of a “newsroom,” with a team of reporters trying to make sense of thousands of unnumbered pages of highly consequential information. As a result, The Washington Post finds itself in possession of a massive government secret at a delicate time, where editors have only a small window of time to jump on the story. On the one hand, Graham and her newsroom have a serious moral obligation to the American people. But at the same time, her business and freedom – as well as that of all her employees – are at stake. Even Nixon has fought incessantly to keep the papers from going public, going so far as to take the case to the Supreme Court.
Throughout it all, Nixon’s shadow looms large, although Spielberg makes sure to paint him as an omnipresent villain rather than a character in and of himself. The film only shows him from the back in its concluding moments, with a vexed Nixon shouting demands into the phone, almost a caricature of a man.
Ultimately, the viewer never truly questions the outcome of The Post, as it is quite obvious and well-known. Nevertheless, Streep’s nuanced performance – by far her best in a long while – allows us to, if only for a moment, be caught up in the tension of it all with her. Perhaps one of the most striking moments of the film occurs during one of Graham’s fabulous soirées – for which she was known– when she is called to the telephone to make the decision on whether or not to publish the Papers. One cannot help but hold their breath as Graham finally says, “Go. Go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish.”
Beyond the occasional moment of Hollywood cheesiness, The Post succeeds in entrancing the audience with its fast-paced, Indiana Jones-esque energy, clacking of typewriters and charming montages of linotype clinking into place and papers rolling off the presses. And now more than ever does The Washington Post’s slogan seem timely: “Democracy dies in darkness.”