Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Bruce Greenwood, Bradley Whitford, Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods, Pat Healy, Michael Stuhlbarg, Justin Swain.
Steven Spielberg’s latest serious drama looks at true story behind the Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers, the leaked documents that showed the full extent of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War over four decades and revealed how subsequent administrations had lied to the public and covered up the truth. This is a tense thriller about government cover-ups, journalistic integrity, and the search for the truth.
The film is set in 1971 and follows their decision to publish the controversial Pentagon Papers. The top-secret papers documented America’s involvement in Vietnam over the course of four administrations and exposed a succession of cover-ups and decisions to hide the reality of the unwinnable war from the American public. The controversial papers provided evidence of a massive government cover up about the on-going war in Vietnam (a war that the government knew it couldn’t win way back in the mid-60s) and the futile loss of thousands of young soldiers.
The papers were leaked by disillusioned Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) in the hope of stopping the war. Extracts from the classified papers were first published by the prestigious New York Times, until President Nixon issued an injunction in the name of national security. That was when the Washington Post, until then considered pretty much a “small town paper”, picked up the gauntlet and went ahead and published the papers in defiance of government orders. It was a decision that eventually turned around the paper’s reputation. A couple of years later the paper also played a major role in bringing down Nixon’s administration by exposing the Watergate scandal.
Former socialite Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) was the first female publisher of a major newspaper, a role she had inherited from her late husband. She was essentially a woman in a world dominated by males. She undergoes a remarkable transformation from the mousy, intimidated woman too afraid to speak up in meetings to finding the strength and courage to speak up. She faces a moral dilemma as she wrestles with the decision to publish the papers. Her lawyers and bankers urge caution and restraint fearing the wrath of Nixon and the White House and the ruin of the newspaper that had been in Graham’s family for generations. But ultimately she supported editor Ben Bradlee’s decision to print the truth regardless of the repercussions.
Tom Hanks is the second Oscar winning actor to play notoriously prickly Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (following Jason Robards), and he brings his usual sense of integrity and moral strength to the role of the dedicated newsman determined to publish the Papers. Streep is strong and grounded as Graham, and she brings nuance to her performance as a woman in a man’s world as she attempts to exercise her authority. She slowly grows in strength and confidence. Neither role particularly stretches the pair, but the scenes these two veterans share crackle with tension. Spielberg has assembled a strong ensemble cast to flesh out the characters, including Bob Odenkirk (as veteran journalist Ben Bagdikian), Bruce Greenwood (as Robert McNamara), Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons and Michael Stuhlbarg, who are all good.
The Post is the first feature film script written by Liz Hannah, whose initial draft concentrated more on Graham’s character. This is the third film from screenwriter Josh Singer exploring the importance of journalism in uncovering political scandal – he also wrote The Fifth Estate (2013), which surrounded Julian Assange’s Wikileaks organization, and the Oscar winning Spotlight (2015), which followed the Boston Globe’s investigation into Catholic child sex abuse allegations and the systemic cover up within the church hierarchy. Singer has also written episodes of The West Wing, so he is also familiar with the political gamesmanship of the White House. He rewrote the script to give it a harder edge and focus more on the drama surrounding the decision to publish the papers.
While it highlights the importance of a free press in a democratic society and its role in holding the government accountable, The Post is not quite in the same league as either Spotlight or All The President’s Men. Spielberg’s direction is measured, but lacks the sense of anger and outrage that someone like Oliver Stone in his prime would have brought to the material. The Post doesn’t elicit the same heightened emotional response as Spotlight.
This was something of a rushed production as Spielberg shot it while still working on the post production effects for the videogame inspired Ready Player One. Nonetheless, The Post is a well-made procedural drama full of insights into the journalistic profession and journalistic integrity, and Spielberg gives the material a sense of urgency. Even though this is a period piece set in the early 70s many of its themes are still very relevant given today’s political climate. However, there are a few minor issues with the pacing in the early stages.
Spielberg gives us a fascinating look at an old-fashioned newspaper newsroom – regular production designer Rick Carter has faithfully recreated a working newsroom with its crowded desks, its typewriters, its reporters chasing down a lead – and he even gives us the smell of the ink from the printing room. Again, his attention to detail seems spot on. The Post has been crisply shot by regular collaborator and Oscar winning veteran cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, whose use of browns and washed out greyish palette gives the film the look and feel of those 70s thrillers like The Parallax View, Klute, etc.
The Post is a prequel of sorts to Alan J Pakula’s gripping 1976 political thriller All The President’s Men, and is, somewhat fittingly, dedicated to the late Nora Ephron, who was once married to Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein, who played a key role in uncovering the Watergate scandal that led to the downfall of President Nixon.