The Post movie director: Steven Spielberg
The Post movie cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson
The Post movie rating: 4 stars
Spielberg rushed this film, about the pressures brought upon by the Nixon administration on newspapers seeking to publish the Pentagon papers, owing to the man who occupies the White House now. He couldn’t have imagined there would be another, happier coincidence. The decision of The Washington Post to risk the government’s wrath and publish the documents, which detailed how the US continued the war in Vietnam despite knowing how badly it was going, had a lot to do with its woman publisher, Katharine Graham. In the exquisite hands of Streep, as Graham finds her way around an all-male, all-condescending, all-knowing space, it is a #TimesUp moment as good as any.
There isn’t much going on in The Post by way of action, and the entire film is shot in perhaps four rooms at best, capturing events over 10 days at most. But amidst those, Spielberg injects suspense, defeat, triumph, tension, and a sense of the times. You get a glimpse of people who have led lives, across cities, classes, genders, leading up to this moment, and you particularly understand what it means for the film’s two main protagonists — Streep as Graham, and Hanks as The Post’s legendary editor Ben Bradlee. Few do heroism, small or big, better than Spielberg, and the fact that he fashions them here out of mere words (not headlines), in times such as ours, deserves acknowledgment.
The Post starts with a former reporter-turned-academic embedded with US troops in Vietnam walking away with a report commissioned by US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Greenwood) on US-Vietnam relations. The New York Times is the first to lay its hands on it, or parts of it, leaving The Washington Post, dismissed as a “local newspaper”, panting to catch up. But this is also the week Graham, struggling to keep the newspaper afloat, is going public, and banks don’t like nasty surprises, especially from a piqued government.
The film is built on the debates between Graham and Bradlee, between Bradlee and his editors, between editors and their sources, between journalists and businessmen, between the written word and the legal one — leading up to the first story in The Washington Post on the Pentagon papers.
The Post takes up all the current crises head on, as to what comprises national security, the dangers of conflating the government with the nation, the role of the press and, even the tightrope journalists walk in their friendships with powers-that-be. Both Graham, born to privilege, and Bradlee, making his way there, are complicit in this.
Hanks turns in another impressive performance, more impressive for often being just one of the many men in smoke-filled newsrooms in rolled-up sleeves and undone ties. But it is Streep who just steals the show from right under their noses, as Spielberg intends. Walking into rooms full of only men, sitting in chairs hovered over by men, advised and talked down to by her board that is only men, compared constantly to her father and reminded repeatedly that he handed over the business to her late husband, and in one significant moment, even talked to sharply by Bradlee himself (a scene lifted out of the mundane by just the look Streep gives, and he ignores), the actor gives an outstanding portrayal of a woman finding her feet.
The Washington Post would outlive another, bigger encounter with Nixon after this, in the Watergate scandal, also under Graham. More importantly, she would be long gone before the newspaper would pass on to Amazon and Jeff Bezos.