Taking a similar approach to earth-shattering news events as 2015’s Spotlight, Steven Spielberg’s The Post barrels through a lot of information, a small army of characters, and enough twists and turns to construct a medium-sized rollercoaster to bring us a fairly straight-forward telling of the events that led to the 1971 publication in the Washington Post of a series of articles summarizing what became known as the “Pentagon Papers.” Working from a masterful screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, the film takes us from the Vietnam War to the newsrooms of both the New York Times and the Post, with brief stops in the Oval Office of the White House, using actual recordings of then-President Richard Nixon to show us that an administration’s resentment of the media did not begin in the last year.
In fact, it’s difficult to maneuver through the story of the Pentagon Papers without reflecting on the role of the media in keeping the government in check and transparent. The Papers were actually a Department of Defense study analyzing U.S.-Vietnam relations dating back as far as 1945 through the ongoing war of the time. At every stage of said relations, through several presidents, the report found, among other things, that any occupation of Vietnam would be disastrous and any war un-winnable. In an effort to win the war, every president had to keep these findings secret and lie to the American people about the status of the war effort.
The study was commissioned by one-time Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who just happened to be great friends with Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep). Graham’s husband’s untimely death (by suicide) resulted in her becoming the first female publisher of a major American newspaper—the Washington Post. With the confidence of almost no one in the organization (primarily because she was a woman), Graham had to negotiate both the Post becoming a publicly traded company and the decision to publish a portion of the Pentagon Papers after a court stopped the New York Times from doing so.
The other major player in this affair was Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), who always saw the publishing of this material as an issue of putting the news first, consequences be damned, something that Graham didn’t have the luxury of doing. His relationship with Graham was certainly cordial but we see several instances where he bristles any time she attempts to tell him how to actually run the paper. As a one-time friend of John F. Kennedy, he particularly understands the perils of becoming social with people who might one day be a source or the subject of a critical piece in one’s publication. With this in mind, he presses Graham to lean on McNamara for information about the study. Barring that, she should at least be aware that the days of palling around with those in government are over. It’s a chilling realization that resonates just as powerfully today.
In order to keep all of the players straight in the audience’s mind, Spielberg has cast an array of familiar faces in key roles, including Matthew Rhys as Daniel Ellsberg, the man who copied and leaked the Pentagon Papers; Sarah Paulson as Bradlee’s wife, Tony; Bob Odenkirk as Post reporter Ben Bagdikian; Tracy Letts as Graham adviser Fritz Beebe; Bradley Whitford as Post board member Arthur Parsons; Alison Brie as Graham’s daughter, Lally; Carrie Coon as Post reporter Meg Greenfield; Jesse Plemons and Zach Woods as Post lawyers Roger Clark and Anthony Essaye; Michael Stuhlbarg as Times executive director Abe Rosenthal; and Pat Healy as reporter Phil Geyelin. There’s no better ensemble cast in the last year, and nearly all get at least a moment or two to really shine.
Odenkirk is particularly strong, capturing the spirit and grit of a true investigative reporter. Brie’s scenes with Streep are both revealing and emotionally critical to the film, as they tiptoe around the issue of Graham’s husband’s suicide and the position it left her in, after spending the entirety of her life never having to hold a job. Some of my favorite moments in The Post are between Letts and Streep as Fritz attempts to indoctrinate her into the ways of the business world and away from the vultures who want to pick at her and eventually push her out. He’s not her protector (she doesn’t require that), but he stays honest with her when she asks for his opinion.
Spielberg also does a magnificent job capturing the look and feel of a 1970s newspaper office, with its smoke-filled offices and newsrooms, sitting atop the roaring printing presses on the lower levels. An important thing to remember as you begin to watch the movie is that, at the time, the Washington Post was a local newspaper that just happened to operate at the center of the nation’s power. The Pentagon Papers put the paper in the national spotlight and helped seal its reputation as a paper willing to defy the government (just ask Deep Throat).
A palpable, rising tension moves through nearly every frame of The Post, and it gives the film a dramatic heat that makes it feel like a thriller at times. And then there’s Streep. The movie is as much Graham’s story as it is about whether or not to publish confidential government documents. She was a product of her time, and it was those same times that never stopped trying to bury her. And Streep not only captures the complexity of her character but shows that, while she was unsure about many things, she never let that stop her from making even the toughest decisions. It’s the best work Streep has done in quite a while (since Doubt and The Devil Wears Prada), and the movie doesn’t succeed with such authority without her.
It’s also nice to see Spielberg step out of the way to a certain degree, foregoing any overt visual flair and simply allowing the story to unfold in a way that feels organic and precise. Having viewed the film a couple times, it’s clear to me that Spielberg’s greatest concern was telling the story in a way that isn’t overly complicated but still makes it clear that the causes and consequences of this trying time were far reaching.
The Post is one of the truly great works of 2017, but don’t expect too much flash just because it’s a Spielberg movie (you’ll get plenty of that with his March release Ready Player One). Sometimes, he makes films that are both great and important.