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The Post

 Hold the Presses 

Meryl Streep
Meryl Streep
20th Century Fox
 116 Minutes
Directed bySteven Spielberg
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks 
The Post

Some great movies strike you with their brilliance right away; others grow on you. It’s a Wonderful Life was dismissed by many critics initially, but it’s hard to imagine Christmas today without Clarence getting his wings. As I watched Steven Spielberg’s The Post, my initial reaction, one sustained through the first hour, was that the movie was solid entertainment, certainly one of the better films of the year, but nothing more. But as the film went on, I spotted little bits and pieces, individual scenes, throwaway comments, and even the expressions on Meryl Streep’s face in a couple of scenes, and I realized that The Post isn’t simply solid entertainment designed to capitalize on a timely topic, but that it’s possibly Spielberg’s best this century and one of the best journalism movies ever made.


In many ways, The Post is a companion piece to Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, the measuring stick for journalism movies based on reporting that’s the measuring stick for investigative journalism. But All the President’s Men was first and foremost about the story; here, the story is equally sensational, but the movie is about the story behind the story.


The story, in this case, is about a several-thousand-page report that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. Compiled by the Department of Defense in the Johnson Administration, the report documented nearly two decades of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and came to the conclusion that the war there was unwinnable. Not surprisingly, the report was classified top secret and was buried for several years, until a young military analyst named Daniel Ellsburg (Matthew Rhys), who had seen the war firsthand, decided to leak the report to the press in 1971, in the hope that its publication would counter the Nixon Administration claims that the U.S. was, in fact, winning the war.


At first, Ellsburg gives the information to the New York Times. However, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), managing editor of the Washington Post, deduces that the Times is on to a big story. The Times does publish some excerpts from Ellsburg’s Papers, but the Justice Department quickly gets an injunction to stop further publication. The injunction doesn’t specifically prohibit others from getting their own copies of the Papers, and that’s what Post reporter Ben Bagdjikian (Bob Odenkirk) does, obtaining another copy from Ellsburg. But the law on the possible criminality of publishing classified documents like the Papers was unsettled at the time, and, if the Post published, the paper conceivably could be held in contempt for violating the injunction.


In one of those strange coincidences that would immediately be rejected in a work of fiction, but which actually occurred, at the very same time Bradlee was preparing to publish his own leaked copy, the publisher of the Post, Katharine Graham (Streep), was trying to take the newspaper, which been in her family for several generations, public. Somewhat surprisingly when thinking of the Washington Post today, or even in 1976 when All the President’s Men was made, the paper then was considered a distant second to the New York Times in terms of prestige, and, in the early part of the movie, the paper’s editors face the somewhat less than earthshaking crisis of not being invited to the weeding of President Nixon’s daughter. The stock offering would raise badly needed capital to help keep the Post a top flight news gathering organization, but a failed offering could be disastrous, and publishing the Papers did expose Graham and her newspaper to that risk.


Much of The Post unfolds along two parallel tracks, one following Bradlee and his reporters figuring out the story, getting the papers from Ellsburg, and then assembling it (literally, as Ellsburg’s typed pages arrived in jumbled, unpaginated form, as the clip below demonstrates, requiring the staff to reorganize them correctly), and then figuring out what to publish first. It’s solid but not earthshaking work; clearly Bradlee is in charge and everyone else is on board. In fact, the most interesting aspect of these scenes are the flashbacks to the mechanics of actual newspaper production at that time, with manual typewriters, handwritten edits, and mechanical type painstakingly assembled to form the printing plates.


The real drama in The Post, however, is in the boardroom, and, ironically, the numerous social soirees hosted or attended by Graham. As the movie makes clear, she had no business experience (and had never had an actual job) when she took over the paper, and she still bore emotional scars from the suicide of her husband a few years earlier. Yet, even as she struggles to understand the legalities and business realities behind her potential actions (information the film imparts both for her and the audience’s benefit), she grows over the course of two hours of screen time. This process is about 20% script and 80% Streep, a magnificent performance. The scene in which she finally makes the decision to publish, preceded by her mentally wrestling with the subject (a great close-up decision by Spielberg) should be required study in acting classes.


Of course, it would be naïve to think that Spielberg’s decision to make this movie in 2017 rather than 10 or 20 years ago had nothing to do with the current state of national politics, and several speeches regarding the role of the press in American society are directed more towards present day audiences than those who might have heard them in 1971. But another political thread emerges from The Post, one that was not as front and center last winter as it is now. The Post is the story of a woman making a difficult business decision at a time when women were rarely in a position to do so. The treatment of Graham throughout the movie, from the board members to reporters after the Supreme Court decision who flocked to ask New York Times officials questions while ignoring her to the reaction she gets from women on the Supreme Court building steps takes on additional significance after the #MeToo revelations of recent months, revelations that the producers of The Post couldn’t possibly have anticipated.


The Post has many other scenes that don’t contribute to the central story per se but work oh, so well. Bradlee takes time to discuss with his wife (Sarah Paulson) the ramifications of what they are doing; Graham opens up to her daughter (Alison Brie) about events in the past; Graham realizes that family friend Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) will be badly hurt by the publication of the Papers and that she can no longer be primarily a social friend to the Washington newsmakers. All of this Spielberg assembles in a deceptively quiet movie whose power becomes apparent only when audiences gauge their reactions to an event (the Supreme Court decision authorizing the publication) that was a matter of familiar historical fact. The movie leaves a few matters unanswered (the mindset of Daniel Ellsburg is tantalizingly just out of reach), but it gets all the big things and a lot of the little ones right. The Post is a timely movie and a timely lesson in film making. 

In this scene, the Washington Post reporters realize how much work they have ahead of them.

Read other reviews of The Post: 

The Post (2017) on IMDb