There are numerous ways to look at The Post, the 1971 story of how the Pentagon Papers came to be published by the Washington Post once The New York Times was enjoined from further publication of revelations that the government’s defense of the Vietnam War was based on systematic lies to Congress and the public. First, it is a dandy newspaper film, something of a prequel to All the President’s Men, showing what the Post had been up to in the year prior to the 1972 Watergate scandal. The Post is not as focused on a single storyline as Alan J. Pakula’s masterpiece, which is both a plus in terms of its multiplicity of angles and a minus in its fuzzier narrative trajectory. Yet, The Post has all the signatures of great newspaper movies: the stentorian whirr of the printing press, the rumble it creates in the newsroom above, the swooping noise of the pneumatic copy tubes, and the nimble mysteries of hot type.
It is inescapable that, for better and worse, this is also a Steven Spielberg movie. There’s hardly a filmmaker who can surpass Spielberg’s effectiveness as a storyteller, with his mixture of fluid concision and popular surrender. The film is anchored in the star power of Meryl Streep as the newspaper’s hesitant publisher Katharine Graham, and Tom Hanks as her hand-picked executive editor Ben Bradlee. The Post is more about these personalities than a straightforward newspaper thriller devoted only to following a story lead to its conclusion. Especially in the film’s closing chapters, the director relies on too many laudatory moments and heroic shots that elevate these characters over the essence of the story. Yet Streep is magnificently Streepish and Hanks, playing tougher than usual, more than holds his own against the memory of Jason Robards’ Oscar-winning version of Bradlee in All the President’s Men.
However, one of the essential story strands of The Post is the blossoming of its publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham, who inherited the position after her husband’s death. A well-loved Washington socialite, Graham was unprepared to become the first woman to lead a Fortune 500 company. The newspaper’s search for, and investigation of, the Pentagon Papers is set against the background of the increased scrutiny of the Post concurrently seeking to take its stock public. Were Graham not already a woman of wavering self-confidence, especially as the sole woman in rooms full of men, the magnitude of deciding to publish the Pentagon Papers would have been enough to make equivocators of die-hard ideologues. Some have remarked that The Post is the story of Kay transforming into Katharine Graham, which is pretty on the mark.
Not to be ignored is that The Post script by Josh Singer (also responsible for the last great shoe-leather newspaper movie, the Oscar-winning Spotlight) and Liz Hannah was written with the expectation of a Hillary Clinton presidency. Instead, the film was rushed into production in spring 2017 for release in the Trump era, where the press has been declared an “enemy of the people.” Undoubtedly, this atmosphere raised the stakes on the film’s truth-seeking mission. Speeches about the need to stand up for the right to publish the truth take on increased urgency and notability in this light. To what extent these were in the original script, or had the same emphasis, is unknown. However, The Post is undeniably an important movie for our times, a product shaped by the present and past, and speaking compellingly to this singular moment in our American history.
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