The Post proves the power of the press

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in The Post.
Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in The Post. Courtesy photo

The Post

115 minutes
Rated PG-13

Steven Spielberg has made movies about dinosaurs and sharks and aliens and adventurin' archeologists and war horses and crime-predicting psychics and big friendly giants. It's probably not difficult to make such things exciting. But this? The Post is a movie in which people sit around arguing about freedom of the press and journalistic ethics and IPOs. Papers are shuffled and xeroxed. Lawyers are consulted, and mostly just frown a lot in reply. The most visually dynamic the movie ever gets involves the setting of hot type — so quaint! — and the rattle of printing presses running off the next morning's newspaper. And it is all completely riveting. Seriously, I had goosebumps on my arms watching tied-up bundles of newspapers being tossed onto trucks about to bring Truth to the world.

The Post crackles with life and energy. The real-life events of almost half a century ago it depicts sizzle with vigor, suspense, and immediacy... and with an urgent relevance for today. Spielberg is surely a genius for having accomplished this alone, but also for bringing Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep together onscreen for the first time. They blaze with such delicious chemistry that it's astonishing to realize that no one has cast them opposite each other before. As, respectively, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and Post publisher Katharine Graham — at a key turning point for the newspaper in 1971 — their characters have nothing but a purely professional relationship, and an antagonistic one, at that. (The business end and the reporting end should not be entangled if the journalism is going to be good... and they get a bit entangled here, which becomes a source of conflict.) It's not romantic chemistry I'm talking about, but a rapport of the purest movie-movie sort: These are two legendary actors at the tops of their games individually, who spark into something cinematically incandescent together.

What they are on fire over together is what turned out to be a signal event in the history of journalism. What came to be known as the Pentagon Papers was a secret analysis of the historical roots of the Vietnam War, a work commissioned by Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), former secretary of defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The documents came to be known thus when they were leaked to The New York Times by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys). "They knew we couldn't win," Ellsberg says here, "and still sent boys to die."

At first the Post is playing catch up with the Times' scoop, but when the White House gets an injunction against any further revelations from the Pentagon Papers being published by the Times, the Post steps up: It has gotten its hands on the documents too. But can they publish? Does that injunction apply to the Post as well? Wait, what? The White House has gone to court to stop a newspaper from publishing? Hanks' Bradlee sums it up nicely: President Nixon is "taking a shit all over the First Amendment."

The Post isn't a courtroom drama: It's not about the two newspapers fighting this clearly unconstitutional injunction with lawyers. (That all happens offscreen.) Something more fundamental is going on here: Bradlee and Graham have to decide whether, in this chilly environment, it's worth taking the risk to publish in the first place. Mostly, it's down to Graham, and she's in a tough spot. She's about to take the family-run Post public, but the IPO can be scuppered by any controversy. Graham is already on thin ice as a woman holding unprecedented power in publishing and facing massive sexism. (It's pretty astonishing that her battle against entrenched misogyny is only the second most important thing happening in The Post.) Would this double whammy simply be too much for investors to swallow?

The Post never outright asks the question, "Why should news be profitable?" but it's all over the film anyway. The film is full of confrontations between power and the imperative of speaking truth to that power... and it comes down on the Fourth Estate's side every time. Spielberg has given us a grand adventure in journalism that is so essential today, when once again the President of the United States is publicly bashing journalists and attempting to smear their reporting as "fake news." The Post is an absolutely essential reminder that the press is rightly an adversary to the powerful, one that is needed now at least as much as it was in 1971.

MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson launched her popular and respected in 1997, making it one of the longest-running film-criticism sites online. Her reviews have appeared a variety of US alt-weekly newspapers. Other credits: Indiewire, PBS’s Independent Lens blog, Film Threat, She is an executive...
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