“The Post” was made for this moment, in more ways than one. Not only does Steven Spielberg’s crisp retelling of the Pentagon Papers story call attention to journalism’s highest calling, but Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s heroic stand — having been thrust into that position — is a stirring portrait of courage during feminism’s pre-Roe v. Wade era.
With Meryl Streep at her best (which is saying something) as Graham, and Tom Hanks cast as the Post’s colorful editor Ben Bradlee (described as a “pirate” by one board member), “The Post” certainly doesn’t lack for star power. But its assets, and significance, go well beyond the showier roles, capturing a newspaper — still on the cusp of greatness — that stood up to a corrupt administration, which included putting journalism ahead of its business interests, as quaint as that sounds.
At first, the movie (written by Liz Hannah and “Spotlight” scribe Josh Singer) appears to have put the camera in the wrong place, given that it was the New York Times that first broke the leak of classified documents in 1971 that outlined the prosecution of the Vietnam War — and what the government really knew about it — across multiple administrations. Bradlee, in fact, has surmised something big is brewing because a star Times reporter has gone too long without a byline.
Still, the Post’s role becomes clear as it races to catch up, while the Nixon administration has handcuffed the Times by suing to enjoin the paper from further publication. The timing, however, couldn’t be worse, with Graham in the midst of an initial public offering, and her advisers counseling against taking on the government, or doing anything that might rock the boat, during that process.
For Graham, who only became publisher after her husband’s suicide, the pressure reflects a departure from a privileged D.C. society life where the women are shown politely retiring to the other room while the men discussed politics and business. Graham is “in a position she never thought she’d be in,” Bradlee’s wife Tony (Sarah Paulson) reminds him.
Paulson is only one of the high-profile TV stars that appear at the margins, as the filmmakers have cast this project to the hilt, including Matthew Rhys as whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and Bob Odenkirk as Bradlee’s trusted lieutenant Ben Bagdikian. Richard Nixon, notably, also plays a supporting role, with Spielberg using snippets of his White House recordings to reflect the animus he harbored toward the Post.
Hanks ably captures Bradlee’s hard-charging swagger, falling somewhere between the actual guy and Jason Robards in “All the President’s Men.” “The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish,” he snarls at one point.
Streep, however, towers over it all as the refined, soft-spoken Graham, in no small part because the movie not only humanizes her but gives her the best dialogue — seemingly designed, as it did during an early screening, to unleash spontaneous applause from those in the audience who will immediately see parallels between the press today and these seminal events 36 years ago.
Inevitably, “The Post” will be politicized (those involved haven’t been shy about discussing their motivations for making it), but the story stands on its own, establishing a powerful sense of drama and gravity with the attributes of a thriller, even knowing the outcome.
To put it in terms that meant a lot more at the time, Spielberg has delivered an above-the-fold story.