HOLLYWOOD—“The Post” is a perfect movie for our time. This stirring, wonderfully acted tribute to a free press is a tremendous cinematic answer to the cynical, pervasive degradation of journalism that has become our daily reality. It reminds us of the good honest accountability journalism has done, its necessity in holding the powerful accountable, and its continued indispensability.
The film tells the story of whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) leaking the highly classified Pentagon Papers to the press, thus exposing government lies about The Vietnam War. After Ellsberg’s leak The New York Times and Washington Post get into a highly consequential legal battle with the federal government over their right to publish national security secrets. The film focuses in on Washington Post publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) and Editor-in-Chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) as they report the story and fight for their right to publish.
Expectations are high when you have two legends like Streep and Hanks working together. They did not disappoint.
Streep brings her typical emotional intensity to the role. She gives us a profound sense of the pressure Graham was under as publisher. Her character development shows her becoming more confident in her leadership role over the course of the narrative. In the hands of a lesser actor this could have felt forced or abrupt. Streep’s performance, and the excellent screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, allows this transformation to happen in a way that never feels rushed, but completely natural. Graham’s subplot also involves her dealing with the condescending, controlling men in her circle. Given the recent revelations of silencing and abuse of women in Hollywood and Trump’s infamous “grab them” comments during the campaign this message is a welcome one.
This is a different sort of role for Hanks. It’s common for him to play ordinary men caught up in extraordinary events; the earnest, humble, everyman types of “Forrest Gump,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and “Captain Phillips.” Hanks’ Bradlee is a swaggering, larger than life figure. It’s far more reminiscent of a Tommy Lee Jones or Harrison Ford character. Hanks could have taken this role over the top but never does. He’s believable throughout. It’s perhaps not as emotional as his turns in “Philidelphia” or “Captain Philips,” but it’s still one of his better performances.
Director Steven Spielberg wasn’t as innovative as some of the other notable filmmakers of 2017. The narrative is a very straight up, classic drama. Still, it’s a masterclass in filmmaking. There’s a slight grayish color to the movie which gives it an old-school, noir like feel. An early combat scene in Vietnam not only hooks the audience with its tension and intensity, but allows us to see the harm the government’s lies are doing when they put soldier’s in such tremendous danger without the public’s fully informed consent. It would have been nice to see the effects of the war on the Vietnamese populous as well, and I would go so far as to call this a flaw. Still, Spielberg made a smart decision adding this into the movie.
The narrative could have easily ended up having boring lulls in the middle, but we are treated to that exciting opening and little is done to lose our attention. Spielberg is good at keeping the stakes high with a general air of somewhat frantic anxiety without the pace seeming rushed, a tough feat to accomplish.
Little things enhance the film; the sights and sounds of the newsroom, the ominous nature of the Nixon White House, and the uplifting, triumphant feel we get when we see the printing of the papers. John William’s masterful score is one of the best of the year. Bob Odenkirk, but one member of the stellar supporting cast, should be receiving more praise for his role as legendary reporter Bob Bagdikian.
The scenes with Ellsberg are some of the best. The early ones where we see him taking the papers from The Rand Corporation are edge of your seat stuff. They’re important in highlighting the danger Ellsberg was putting himself in. A superb, wise tribute to whistleblowers in a film that could have easily undersold their accomplishments in sole favor of praising journalists.
This rings true in the case of protestors as well. Spielberg highlights them several times. It’s good that he shows the press are not the sole group holding power to account. Activists play a large role in too, and their contributions are wisely acknowledged.
The two films that “The Post” will always be compared to are “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight.” The former has more than earned its place among the laters as a classic cinematic take on journalism. It’s perhaps one of the most relevant commentaries on the modern media industry ever put to film. Graham argues in the movie for budgeting to keep reporters. In our current era of newsroom cuts this is an extremely pertinent message. One of the film’s surprising, and I must say very intelligent aspects was to address some of the media’s problems instead of just offering hero worship.
Graham has a friendly relationship with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) and Bradlee was good friends with President Kennedy. Both Graham and Bradlee mean well and have no intention to let people off the hook, but it’s made clear that these relationships are detrimental to their journalistic mission. Bradlee admits that being friends with Kennedy impeded his ability to fully hold him accountable, and sees the need to do better. This is a good message for all aspiring journalists.
We live in an era when the idea of a free and oppositional media is under assault. Trump has continuously degraded media organizations and journalists that report on topics he doesn’t like while praising the toadys who carry his water at Fox and other outlets. We have seen a number of reptilian scoundrels and dregs of the internet being venerated as journalists for nothing more than evidence free conspiracy theories and rumor mongering of the worst kind. There seems to be an appetite among many of our fellow citizens for propaganda over reportage, myth over facts, MAGA over accountability. “The Post” pushes back against this rising, dangerous tide.
The imperfections and failures of the media do not negate its necessity to a functioning democracy. Its high professional standards and investigative skill are as important now as they were in the early 70s. This film, like all great inspirational films, asks us to be our best as citizens, journalists, and as a nation.
A moment that will stay with me for a long time, and perhaps the movie’s most vital lesson, is when a Post reporter is relaying Justice Black’s ruling to the staff in the newsroom after The Supreme Court rules in favor of the New York Times and Washington Post.
“The press was to serve the governed, not the governors,” she says.