It’s not just dispiriting to hear Donald Trump declare that the press is the enemy of the people: it’s downright scary. So in a year when the media has been mercilessly maligned, Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” the story of The Washington Post’s decision to resist a Federal court’s injunction and publish The Pentagon Papers in 1971, arrives as a welcome antidote to our current national nightmare. Not only is it the most important film of the year, it is also a rousing piece of entertainment. It is the feel good movie of the year, in a year when there admittedly wasn’t a lot to cheer about.
“The Post” plays like a classic Hollywood movie, in the best sense. A powerful story, first-rate performances with a strong supporting cast, headlined by Meryl Streep as Post publisher Katherine Graham and Tom Hanks as legendary editor Ben Bradlee. The script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (Singer won an Oscar for “Spotlight”) is crisp and economical, like a good newspaper story, and the design and look of the film speaks of quality, but not too loudly. The craft is invisible. There is not a shot or camera angle that calls attention to itself. Spielberg’s artistry only looks easy to do; it’s not. There are few storytellers who could turn a film in which the outcome is already known, as it was in “All the President’s Men” (1976), into a suspenseful thriller.
The film starts with a revealing preamble. Daniel Elisberg (Matthew Rhys) is a State Department observer in Vietnam in 1966 who already sees the folly of the war. Five years later, the country is still following the same failed policies even though a top secret Defense Department study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam over the past two decades and four presidential administrations has definitively showed that it’s a hopeless dead-end. Rather than tell the country the truth, the main rationale for continuing the war is to simply not admit failure to the American people.
Elisberg, who has become a researcher for the Rand Corporation, has access to the 7000-page, 47-volume study and, in an act of conscience and defiance, gives it first to The New York Times then The Washington Post. The Times publishes the first installments of what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, until a raging Richard Nixon gets a federal court injunction to halt further publishing. “Hell, they’re our enemy, I think we should do it.”
This marked the first time since the founding of the Republic that a newspaper had been prohibited from publishing a story. In a clever piece of staging that captures the paranoia and hysteria of the era, Spielberg spies on the president with a long-range shot through a window of the White House where we see a silhouetted actor playing Nixon while we hear the actual taped conversation between Nixon and Henry Kissinger on the soundtrack.
The stage is set for The Post’s role in this national drama. At the time, The Post was an also-ran to The New York Times and was not even the top daily in Washington. An intelligent but ill-equipped Graham had taken over the family-owned paper after the suicide of her husband and was mostly patronized by everyone around her. Her given place in the Washington hierarchy was as a society party-giver. As she walks tentatively into a boardroom to pitch a public offering to shore up the paper’s finances, she is the only woman in the room surrounded by a sea of gray men in dark suits.
Graham’s growing into her role parallels the rising tide of feminism in the country, and her personal story propels the national narrative of the film. It’s a field day for Streep who has always been strongest portraying the internal workings of characters in crisis. Graham’s meekness is complemented by Bradlee’s charging bull of an editor. Hanks’ performance will inevitably be compared to Jason Robards’ great supporting role in “All the President’s Men,” but Hanks brings more physicality to the character. Not entirely joking, Bradlee says he would give his “left one” to be a part of the Pentagon Papers story.
He gets his chance after The Times is blocked from further printing the Papers and stalwart Post assistant editor Ben Bagdikian (a wonderful Bob Odenkirk) tracks down Elisberg and gets 4000 pages of the document. The early stages of the film unspool as a detective story as The Post connects the dots and gets its hands on the Papers.
The plot thickens when the possibility of printing the Papers becomes a reality. Language in the public offering stipulated that nothing catastrophic can happen to the paper or else investors can back out of the deal. Board members and financial advisers who don’t take Graham seriously as a leader argue that printing the Pentagon Papers would jeopardize the paper’s future.
Now Nixon and the Justice Department go to war with The Post. In all of his pettiness, again caught on tape, Nixon declares that from now on, no one from The Post will be permitted in the White House. Internal counsel for The Post argues that when the Justice Department banned The Times from printing, that also applied to The Post. Bradlee and his team stand on the freedom of the press guaranteed in the First Amendment. “The only way to protect the right to publish, he says, “is to publish.”
The decision comes down to Graham. In the midst of a party at her Georgetown mansion, she is besieged by both sides. Dressed in an airy yellow kaftan (credit to costume designer Ann Roth), she looks like a queen reluctantly ascending her throne. As the camera moves in for a close-up, Streep brilliantly captures Graham’s thought process as it plays across her face. Finally she decides: “Let’s do it, Let’s publish.” It’s a brave choice. At great financial risk to herself and the paper she loves, she realizes that if the press doesn’t hold the government accountable, who will. And, in the end, that tops all.
The romance of newspapers is alive and well here. The building shakes as the type is set and the presses roll. Trucks carrying the edition with the story of government malfeasance burst out of the garage like messengers of truth. Spielberg doesn’t miss a detail of this ritual.
In some quarters, “The Post” has been criticized as a piece of nostalgia, an ode to the hopefulness of the way things were. But Spielberg has always been an optimistic filmmaker, who by disposition sees the best in people amidst the march of history, even in terrible times. I think Spielberg made “The Post” as a rallying cry and cautionary tale for the present. He signed on the make the film shortly after Trump took office in January and brought it to theaters in an astonishing six months.
There is one more chapter in the chronicle of The Post and the Pentagon Papers. The case goes to the Supreme Court, which upholds the freedom of the press in a six-to-three decision. As Graham exist the courthouse, she winds her way through an admiring crowd of women. When she declared that this is not her father’s company, or her husband’s company, but her company, she took a crucial step not just to uphold the rights of the press but the rights of women to have a voice in history.
Graham breathes a sigh of relief and says she could never go through anything like this again, just as the committee to reelect Nixon is breaking into the Watergate complex. The press ultimately prevailed in that as well. Whether it will in the Age of Trump remains to be seen.