Streep, Hanks shine in ‘The Post’
“The Post” has all the earmarks of a VERY IMPORTANT MOVIE.
It stars the queen and king of importance, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, who between them don’t have enough fingers and toes to tally their Oscar nominations.
Though a period piece, it deals with a vital issue - the government versus the press - that rings with resonance today as the media battle both a hostile executive branch and the grinding gears of shifting reader and viewer habits.
It’s based on a true story that created a crisis for the Nixon administration.
And, if all that’s not enough, it’s helmed by Steven Spielberg, one of the few directors alive whose name implies “cinematic importance.”
But if “The Post” at first seems like the kind of good-for-you movie-going experience that might be more educational than entertaining, it manages to be both. Like the similar “Spotlight,” with which it shares a co-writer, “The Post” is a journalistic procedural that’s an engrossing how-did-they-do-it bolstered by some stellar performances.
It’s the early ’70s and Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”) is a U.S. military analyst who has grown angry over what he sees as the discrepancy between the grim, deadly reality of a failing Vietnam War effort and the government’s public face of inevitable victory. So, he turns whistleblower, releasing “The United States - Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense.” Better known as “The Pentagon Papers,” it’s a document that laid bare the many years of lies behind the patriotic facade surrounding the Vietnam War.
He secretly releases it first to the New York Times, leaving the Washington Post - going through tumult of its own as the company was getting ready to go public while also being led by an untested female publisher, Katherine Graham (Streep) - flat-footed.
Losing out to the Times enrages Post editor Ben Bradlee (a very good Hanks) who’s determined to play catch up. He seizes the opportunity when the government obtains an injunction against the Times, which had published three articles, from publishing any more. If Bradlee and his reporters - especially Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) - can dive into the breach and get their hands on “The Pentagon Papers,” they can scoop their competition, make a name for the paper on the national stage and strike a blow for both the first amendment and the public’s right to know.
Well, maybe not if you’re a neophyte publisher still living in the shadow of your deceased predecessor, Philip Graham, who also happened to be your husband. And, not if your company is about to go public. Picking a losing fight with the government just might be the surest way to give your lawyers and accountants ulcers, not to mention tarnish your husband’s legacy, as well as ensure unemployment for the khaki-clad hordes in your newsroom.
As much as “The Post” is a film about spy-vs.-spy journalism, the heat of competition and governmental cover-ups, it’s also a film about a woman coming into her own. Streep expertly captures Graham’s initial shyness and reluctance to exert control, as she’s talked over and mansplained to by Bradlee and all the other (male) executives at the paper. Slowly, Graham becomes more secure in her role and Streep allows the audience to see her blossom.
Spielberg, working from a script by Josh Singer (the “Spotlight” co-writer) and Elizabeth Hannah, never lets “The Post” sag under the weight of history. There are many plot points to cram into a film that runs just under two hours but he does so without slowing things to a crawl or feeling too rushed. Still, the disappearance of Ellsberg from the latter part of story might strike some as odd.
While physical newspapers may not be as much a part of American life as they used to be, the occasional films about their publication - such as “Zodiac” (2007), “State of Play” (2009), and “Spotlight” (2015) - continue to enthrall.
Now, “The Post” can be added to the list.