Something of an origin story/prequel to “All the President’s Men,” Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” tracks the moment that the Washington Post transformed from a cozy regional publication to a journalistic powerhouse that would take on — and eventually take down — the government.
While the screenplay by Liz Hannah (“Guidance”) and Josh Singer (“Spotlight”) doesn’t always slip in necessary exposition in the most graceful way, it nonetheless offers suspense and rich characterizations to an all too timely examination of the importance of a free press and of the constant obligation to speak truth to power.
The film opens with the Post having access issues with the 1971 White House – over the coverage of Tricia Nixon’s wedding; there are objections to the Post reporter over her alleged previous crashing of Julie’s reception. Meanwhile, The New York Times has much bigger fish to fry with the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a leaked Rand Corporation study showing that administration after administration, dating back to Truman, was failing to craft successful policy on Vietnam, and that the war raged on mostly to prevent humiliation over a U.S. loss.
Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is furious over being scooped, but when the Department of Justice temporarily halts the Times’ publication of the papers, he senses an opening. After the Post tracks down its own copy of the documents, Bradlee and his staff have about a day to sort information that the Times had for months, but whether or not the Post can publish becomes another matter altogether.
Publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) had just taken the paper public, and while her family still owned the Post, investors could have conceivably backed out of their investments over a “catastrophic occurrence,” which would include the publisher being arrested for treason. Not to mention the fact that the Pentagon Papers are an embarrassment to Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), an old friend of Graham’s. Both she and Bradlee had also been intimates with JFK; the publication of the papers would forever end an era in which the Post’s execs were quite so cordial with the politicos they’re supposed to be covering.
Inasmuch as “The Post” often calls to mind the gritty thrillers and procedurals of the 1970s, Graham’s story also places the film in that decade’s tradition of tales of feminist awakening. Kay Graham’s father left the business not to her but to her husband, and it was only after his suicide that she assumed leadership.
It’s unusual to see Meryl Streep playing a woman lacking in self-confidence, but over the course of the film, we see this socialite bloom from quiet and reticent to outspoken and firm in her convictions. (As portrayed here, this is a woman who changed the course of American history while wearing a gold caftan.)
This is by definition a quieter character than Margaret Thatcher and Julia Child and other real-life characters Streep has tackled, but her work here is some of her most riveting; the way Kay avoids conflict, and then later leans into it, offers Streep new ways to captivate.
Spielberg has crafted a solid piece of work that skillfully juggles both suspense and Big Ideas, and his team of collaborators delivers, from John Williams’ horn-heavy score (creating either tension or heroic awe, as needed) to Janusz Kaminski’s camera sliding its way through newsrooms and dinner parties, all lit with that particular brand of early 1970s drabness.
Hanks (wonderfully irascible, and landing at least one trademark Hanks-ian laugh line) and Streep lead an incredibly deep bench of acclaimed character actors, including Bob Odenkirk and David Cross (framed together at the beginning of the film — who knew Spielberg was a “Mr. Show” fan?), Greenwood, Tracy Letts, Michael Stuhlbarg, Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Michael Cyril Creighton, Stark Sands, Jesse Plemons and Matthew Rhys, to name but a few.
“The Post” passes the trickiest tests of a historical drama: It makes us understand that decisions that have been validated by the lens of history were difficult ones to make in the moment, and it generates suspense over how all the pieces fell into place to make those decisions come to fruition. (“Darkest Hour” doesn’t do either half so well.) On the other hand, the script forces one character to tell another character something that he or she already knows — Ben reminds Kay of her chumminess with past presidents; Ben’s wife Tony (Paulson) explains to him the risk Kay is taking by approving the publication of the papers — purely for the benefit of the audience.
Still, as clunky as those scenes are on the page, they’re being acted by powerhouse performers, which makes them go down easier. And if “All the President’s Men” hadn’t already been made, it would be a treat to see this cast come back for the next chapter of this saga.