The Press Stands Up for Itself in The Post
Decades from now, film historians studying how movies reflect the times they were made in, are at some point going to have to discuss The Post. The Steven Spielberg-directed film about the Pentagon Papers with a heavy theme on the importance of the free press was obviously made in the current political climate for a reason. But even without that context, it is an intriguing story, brought to life, skilfully, by a team of professionals.
In 1971, the Washington Post, a D.C. area newspaper timidly run by publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) who inherited it from her late husband. After the New York Times breaks a story incriminating Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) in a cover-up involving the Vietnam War, the Post manages to get their hands on four thousand pages of a document revealing decades of the government lying to the American people about the cost and necessity of the war. As editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) clashes heads with various directors, stockholders, and lawyers as to whether to publish the highly classified documents, Graham struggles to reconcile her personal relationships with the people the Papers would hurt.
As someone who didn’t really know much about the Pentagon Papers, this movie does a good job explaining the situation and stakes. And because of that, it keeps your attention, and is only in rare moments dull. It builds on the intrigue quite well and presents its conflict seriously. The filmmaking is very competent, Spielberg shooting the movie with the same sense of urgency as one of his early films. The threat of the government coming down on them is periodically illustrated through long shots of Nixon in the White House while his orders over the phone are playing in voiceover. However before the Post gets the Papers, the pacing certainly lags in places. It tries to set up the characters, which is a noble effort, but it seems incidental. There’s a major undercurrent of sexism during the time, particularly the focus on how all of the board members but Graham are men, and how despite her being the publisher, these directors -epitomized in Bradley Whitford’s character, are dismissive of her. It’s a significant commentary, but one that’s often clumsily integrated. This is especially noticeable in a scene where Bradlee’s wife, played by Sarah Polley, expounds to him Graham’s struggle.
However she’s still good in the part, and one of the films’ greatest strengths is its cast. Streep is pretty good as the unassertive publisher torn between her reputation and her morality. I like that the film shows her connections with the socially elite and political figures, and how it may be marring the integrity of the paper. She also struggles with her love for the institution which had formerly been her fathers’ and husbands’. Streep’s going to get an Oscar nomination for this because she’s Meryl Streep, but at least it’s not going to be as big of a joke as her Into the Woods nod. Bradlee is certainly the more entertaining character though, and Hanks is great. To some degree he’s played as a stereotypical editor, but Hanks is so fun in that role that it hardly matters. Though he’s the biggest champion in favour of publishing the papers he also has to contend with his own biases. The cast also includes Bob Odenkirk, who brings heaps of personality to assistant editor Ben Bagdikian. Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, and David Cross play other significant figures at the Post, while Jesse Plemons and Zach Woods play the lawyers sorting out the legal ramifications of publishing. Greenwood’s very good, so is Matthew Rhys as the Vietnam vet who leaked the Papers, and it’s always nice to see Michael Stuhlbarg in a movie, here as the editor of the New York Times. Even Alison Brie appears in the film as Graham’s daughter.
But while this is an engaging cast and a largely well-executed story, it’s very much a Hollywood movie. The 70’s environment is portrayed believably, but parts of the dialogue aren’t. There are some very dramatic speeches extolling the integrity of the press and how the government should be held accountable, that are certainly well-meaning but not natural. And yeah, there are times, particularly near the end when the conscious commentary gets distracting; lines of dialogue asserting the constitutional obligation of the press for instance that are clearly directed at a specific administration. And the ending is kind of funny in that it’s something of a cliffhanger, as though The Post is intended to be a direct prequel to All the Presidents’ Men.
There’s no escaping how contemporary this movie is. Like M*A*S*H and Bonnie & Clyde, this is a film that while ostensibly about another period, is really about the present. However, though this aspect is awkwardly conveyed, The Post is still very interesting and insightful. It’s well-made, very well-acted, and timely -not a great film, but perhaps an important one.
The Post is now playing at Galaxy Cinema