Dream team of Spielberg, Hanks and Streep combine forces to tell story of Washington Post’s printing of Pentagon Papers
“The Post” is about today.
Sure, Steven Spielberg’s riveting journalism thriller takes place in 1971 and covers the Washington Post’s fight to print the Pentagon Papers, documents that contained highly classified information about the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. But it is very much about today, and its themes of freedom of the press and speaking truth to power resonate now in the Donald Trump era of so-called “Fake News” just as much, if not more, than they did in the early 1970s. (That the film is hitting theaters just as Trump tried shutting down the release of an unflattering book about his presidency works even more in its favor.)
It doesn’t take much to see the parallels between then and now, but Spielberg doesn’t lay it on overly thick. He lets the story — penned by Josh Singer (“The West Wing,” “Spotlight”) and Liz Hannah — unfold on its own and lets viewers draw their own conclusions, and uses his incredible chops to create an air of nail-biting tension as the action plays out. Even if you know the story and its beats, “The Post” is still enthralling, inspiring entertainment. This baby cooks.
“My god, the fun!” That’s what Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee says midway through “The Post” when he’s hot on the trail of a scoop and the pieces start coming together. He’s a seasoned editor in the Washington Post’s newsroom who is tired of having his lunch eaten on a daily basis by the New York Times. When the Times prints the first portions of the Pentagon Papers, his journalistic Spidey-senses start tingling. He wants a piece of the pie.
He often clashes with his boss, Post owner Katharine (Kay) Graham (Meryl Streep), who is in the midst of taking the paper public. She has to answer to a board of directors (which includes Tracy Letts as Fritz Beebe and Bradley Whitford as Arthur Parsons) who don’t want anything to rock the boat of their sale, which the printing of government secrets most certainly will do. Graham has to come to terms with the goals of the newspaper and journalism as a whole, and balance them with the friendships she has cultivated over the years with high-ranking government officials, among them Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who is at the center of the Pentagon Papers.
Back at the newspaper, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) is chasing down sources and trying to get his hands on the actual papers. Once he does, he brings them to Bradlee’s home, which becomes a sort of remote newsroom for a team of reporters who pore over the thousands of pages of documents, attempting to distill them into a narrative. But it’s not as simple as just typing up the stories and placing them in the paper; there are deep legal concerns, so the paper’s lawyers (played by Jesse Plemons and Zach Woods) raise the questions they need to ask to get clearance to either print or hold the story.
Meanwhile, the shadow of Richard Nixon looms large over everything. Nixon is only seen from behind, through the window of the White House, barking orders into a telephone. He’s the story’s clear villain, looking to silence the paper and stop the truth from coming out, and Spielberg wisely keeps his distance from him, using him as a symbol rather than a character.
The large ensemble cast is given plenty to tear into — this is riveting, big-picture stuff about our country and how it works — so it’s a shame the great Sarah Paulson, playing Bradlee’s wife, is stuck with next-to-nothing to do but make concerned faces in the background and prepare sandwiches while the reporters do their work. She’s stuck in a 1950s housewife role, and Paulson is too good to be used in a nothing role.
Otherwise “The Post” hits on all fronts, addressing journalism’s lofty goals, its essential role as a cornerstone in our democracy and the ethics of carrying it out amid the choppy waters of personal relationships and big government trying to tear it down.
The people deserve the truth and not to be lied to, but “The Post” shows that is easier said than done, and it’s harder than just writing a story and sending it to the presses. “The Post” — like “Spotlight” two years ago — respects the craft, the mission and the thrill of journalism, as well as those dedicated to carrying it out. It’s a love letter to newspapers and a thumb in the eye to those who try to silence them.
My god, the fun.
Rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence
Running time: 115 minutes