In 1971, something was leaked to the New York Times, information about the so-called “Pentagon Papers”, a long study and analysis performed on the US and the Vietnam War. One of the critical takeaways is that each President involved was aware how badly the war was going and said nothing. Now, with Nixon in office and the War continuing, analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) snuck out the document and painstakingly photocopied every single page.
In The Post, we continue from the fallout of this exposé in the offices of The Washington Post, where executive editor Ben Bradlee (a classic Tom Hanks) ponders what to do when the White House bars the Times from publishing anything further due to national security concerns. At the same time the paper, owned by Kay Graham (a magnificent Meryl Streep) is preparing to go public, so a lot of money is on the line.
Kay inherited the paper from her father and gets constant push back about her decisions (other shareholders played by Tracy Letts and Bradley Whitford), primarily due to her being a woman. And then there’s her old friend Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), former Secretary of Defense and someone with a lot of insight in what really happened in Vietnam. And on top of all that, she’s a doting grandmother, spending a lot of time with daughter Lally (Alison Brie).
That’s already an insanely talented set of actors, and then there’s the Post crew, including reporters Bab Bagdikian (an always grand Bob Odenkirk) and Meg Greenfield (yet another great television actor Carrie Coons). The tension begins when they get the opportunity to publish leaks on the Papers too. The shareholders and lawyers are against it of course, the reporters on the ground are for it, and Ben Bradlee thinks supporting the press is vital.
But Kay is conflicted; she doesn’t want to go to jail or sentence any others either, which is a real risk with Nixon in office. Nixon is never shown by his face in the movie, but instead we get glimpses into the White House as real audio of his damning phone calls are played. It’s a nice touch.
Everyone comes together in the final moments in Bradlee’s house as they scour thousands of pages without page numbers, trying to find something that needs to be reported as the hours count down to when the paper must go to press. And for a movie to create such tension when the result is in no doubt, that’s impressive. Spielberg keeps things focused and tight, getting involved mainly in Hanks and Streep and the relationship of their characters.
It is a remarkably feminist film and a pretty funny one as well. This isn’t an action-heavy summer blockbuster movie that Spielberg is known for, like the upcoming Ready Player One, but that throws you in the middle of reality and dares you to think about how important the press truly is against a presidency that wants to control it.
But there should be no doubt about the timing of this movie. The movie was filmed this year between May and November, and Spielberg himself said that this was a movie very important to the modern era. The vitality of a free press, unencumbered by threats from a biased government, was something the US was founded on — there is a strong argument made in The Post that sacrifices and risks are worth keeping a light on.
There is no surprise that we got such great performances in a film with such a murderer’s row of talent, but there is some surprise that Meryl Streep gives one of her best performances yet. It’s not the showiest of films this year but it’s a damn good one.
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The Post has a run time of 1 hour 55 minutes and is rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence.