‘The Post’ is a Compelling and Timely Tale About the Power of the Press

Everyone needs to see The Post; it’s outstandingly crafted and (after the political disaster that was 2017) monumentally topical and important. There is, of course, a lot more worth saying about this film, but as Meryl Streep’s Kay Graham says: don’t bury the lede.

Of all the movies being talked about this awards season, none feel as current and relevant as Steven Spielberg’s latest project. Though the true events which inspired the film occurred during the Nixon presidency of the early 70s, the story feels as if it could be unfolding today.

Set against the political backdrop of the long-fought Vietnam War, Spielberg’s film focuses on the leaking of the Pentagon papers—which revealed that the American government had been lying to the public about the progress of the war for decades—to the press, and the resulting decisions surrounding their publication.

Though the movie is about The Washington Post, the newspaper that originally published stories about the Pentagon papers was The New York Times—a far more prolific news outlet at the time. The reports published in the Times were a bombshell, and the paper was immediately hit with a federal injunction barring further publication. However, it is not from these events that the film draws its dramatic tensions.

After the Times is banned from publishing the papers, Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) manages to obtain a copy of the reports, leaving the newspaper’s stubborn editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) trying to convince reluctant owner Katharine Graham (Streep) to publish the information contained in the papers.

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Kay Graham (20th Century Fox)

The film spends a significant portion of its runtime on the choice facing the main characters, one they know will likely end in a Supreme Court battle. Even though Graham’s ultimate decision is a matter of history, Spielberg still manages to draw excellent drama from her dilemma. Deciding to expose the government’s lies may seem like an easy call to make, but Spielberg shows the viewer the complexity of the situation as it was at the time and how much everyone involved had at stake—a defeat at the hands of Nixon in the Supreme Court would not only have ended the paper but also likely landed the publishers in jail.

“To make this decision, to risk her fortune and the company that’s been her entire life, well, I think that’s brave,” surmises Bradlee’s wife (Sarah Paulson) in a scene filled with excellent dialogue—something present in spades, thanks to writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, who fill the film with expertly crafted lines.

After all the effective build-up and tension that the viewer knows will culminate with the characters at the Supreme Court, however, the film runs into some pacing issues which do hurt its landing. We never get to see any of the legal battle, instead, the film rushes through the event which everything up until that point has led to. Perhaps Spielberg is less interested in this more public portion of the narrative, and more invested in Graham and Bradlee’s story, but it still feels like he’s skipping over a significant portion of the events that took place. It’s not as bad as a hack-job “then everything blows up; the end” conclusion, but it does rob the film of a final climactic punch.

Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham of the Washington Post
The real-life Bradlee and Graham after hearing the Supreme Court decision (The Washington Post)

In addition to the impressive script, the film also boasts first-rate performances from Streep and Hanks. The two leads have excellent chemistry and a perfect rapport; they realize their characters with aplomb, and it’s a pure cinematic pleasure to watch two of the most accomplished American actors in top form. Hanks never wavers from Bradlee’s obstinate conviction, an onscreen force to be reckoned with, while Streep maintains the difficult balance of Graham’s lapses of self-confidence and strength in the face of extreme sexism and profound political pressure.

Spielberg gives careful attention to the visual details of the story as well. The publication process and giant printing presses, in particular, are captured with exquisite detail. From them emanates the motion which drives the film forward, contrasted with Nixon, only ever seen from behind through the window of the White House, who looks minuscule compared to the monstrous machines—a reminder of the power and importance they wield in a democratic society.

In our era of governmental attempts at suppressing the freedom of the press and slanderous accusations of fake news, The Post is not just a gripping, well-made film, but a perfect rebut to the immoral actions of Donald Trump and his truth-hating ilk.

Grade: A-

(Featured Image: The Post, 20th Century Fox)

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