For most of the 20th Century, American print journalism was dominated by two sources: the newswires, and the New York Times. Of course, those out front are also the first to run into setbacks, which is exactly what happened in 1971 when the courts would step in to prevent the publication of Times stories based off of a leaked Department of Defense report. This report, called the “Pentagon Papers,” would reveal decades of deception by American presidents regarding the country’s involvement in Vietnam. A local paper with an aggressive editor and unseasoned publisher, the Washington Post was in the enviable position of being the only other paper with access to the report, and their decision to publish would not only catapult the outlet to international prominence, but also shape the way Americans viewed their elected officials.
Filmed and edited all during post-production work on his upcoming Ready Player One, Spielberg’s The Post eschews a traditional investigative narrative, à la Spotlight, and instead focuses on the strategic decisions made by editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep). This narrative choice turns what could have been another re-litigation of the Vietnam War and Nixon administration into something more timely: a discussion of the responsibilities and ethics of journalists in a free society.
That’s not to say that the details of the report and reporting get ignored, as they inform most of the first act. We’re introduced to Bradlee as the paper struggles to play catch-up with the New York Times, a paper with more power, prestige, and access to the bombshell report. Spielberg and Hanks play these early scenes perfectly, ratcheting up the tension and frustration as Bradlee and his team fall behind, while also presenting the report’s revelations with just enough historical context to be shocking even today.
Graham, on the other hand, begins the movie dealing with other matters. The first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Graham is concerned with taking the company public and protecting her friendships with other power Washington figures like Robert McNamara, who just happened to be the one who commissioned the report. Graham’s path to her role as CEO burdens her from the start. As a woman, her father passed control of the company to her husband, who would go on to commit suicide and leave her to inherit the role. We see her lack of confidence in early scenes with advisors and bankers, as she cedes the floor time and again to boisterous men instead of asserting herself. When the time comes to either sit on the Pentagon Papers or report on them possibly in violation of the New York Times court order, Graham no longer has the luxury of passivity, and the scene where Graham must choose during a conference call is an all-time great Streep moment.
After her decision, the focus is no longer on the contents of the report, but rather what it represents. With Nixon seeking punitive measures against the Times, Bradlee and Graham’s decision rests on whether they must follow the spirit of an unjust ruling or publish in defiance of an administration which equated disrespecting a president with undermining the state. Underlying all of this is also the simple fact that these decades of secrets should never have taken this long to reported on, and watching Hanks’ Bradlee grapple with the effects his personal relationships with officials may have had on his reporting gives him his best scene in the film.
While Spielberg was always able to cast a movie well, it’s only in recent years when he has become an “actors’ director,” coaxing some of fantastic performances from newcomers and veterans alike. Graham’s arc from unsure publishing novice to a decisive feminist CEO provides Streep with one of her best roles in years. While she does not command a majority of the screen time, she makes each moment count, causing this sped-up transformation to feel both believable and affecting. Hanks and the rest of the cast are similarly great, but lack the depth of material to do much more than their usual.
Outside of the acting, the direction remains as entertaining and sharp as ever. The investigative scenes crackle with intensity, the decision-making captures the gravity of their situation, and the quieter scenes never break the pace of the film. Few directors still working seem to have such a firm grasp on how to entertain audience, and The Post may be some of his best work in the medium in several years. His standard collaborators do their usual stuff, with John Williams’ score being suitably noble and restrained, while cinematographer Janusz Kaminski seems determined to over-light each movie more than his last.
As the film enters its final act and the Post is taken to the Supreme Court over their reporting, Spielberg does struggle to fix some of the weaknesses of the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. With so many big questions being posed, a finale centring on a simple court verdict feels slightly anticlimactic, especially knowing that the even more impactful Watergate scandal is just around the corner. Cheesy lines extolling the virtues of the press also come across as too on-the-nose in their attempts to draw parallels to present day.
In the end, The Post is another solid entry into Spielberg’s overall filmography, and one of his better ones focusing on American history. The questions it poses will certainly resonate in today’s political environment, and I am sure will bring plenty of awards success as well. It may not be the Spielberg masterpiece many of us may have assumed, but even a “very good” film from the 71 year-old director is something to see.