It isn’t necessary to know the circumstances under which the new Steven Spielberg–Meryl Streep–Tom Hanks journalism drama The Post was produced, but it makes the movie seem more immediate — more of a muckraker, and even more fun. The film came together very fast, while Spielberg was basically sitting around waiting for the special effects on his upcoming virtual-reality epic Ready Player One. Effects on that scale take a while, and Spielberg, apparently, isn’t used to having time on his hands. He was no doubt feeling especially useless — as many of us were — watching the brand-new Trump administration reject the media’s demonstrably true facts in favor of so-called “alternative facts” prompted by the commander-in-chief’s Il Duce–like need to be venerated — and, later, far removed from “the Russia thing.” That’s when Spielberg read Liz Hannah’s screenplay, ordered up a revision by Josh Singer (who’d won an Oscar for another prestige journalism movie, Spotlight), and enlisted his old pal Hanks and La Streep for a spring 2017 shoot. And awaaay they went.
Set in 1971, The Post centers on Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Streep), who has to make the final decision on whether to publish sections of what are known as the Pentagon Papers — decades worth of internal communications about the Vietnam War that were stolen and copied by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys). The PP’s big takeaway is that Kennedy and Johnson’s secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), knew as early as 1965 that the war was unwinnable but kept sending our boys to Southeast Asia to kill and be killed. The New York Times has already published some of the papers — to the frustration of Post editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks). But the Nixon administration, claiming national security, has stopped the Times’ publication, and so the Post has a chance to carry the ball forward in the name of a free press. If, that is, “Mrs.” Graham gives the go-ahead.
Objectively speaking, the events of The Post shouldn’t make for much of a nail-biter. The suspense was in Ellsberg’s agonizing decision to steal the papers and the way in which he did it, a little at a time to escape scrutiny; and it was in the Times’ brave decision to publish and the massive secrecy that surrounded the day’s front page. As someone I read on Facebook put it, telling the Pentagon Papers story from the vantage of the Washington Post is like telling the Watergate story from the vantage of the New York Times. That said, there’s enough drama here for the bystanders, too, and The Post is a good enough “procedural” to keep you hooked.
The core story — the one that inspired Hannah — isn’t Ellsberg or even Bradlee, but Graham, a high-society woman who has never had much contact with hard-charging, chain-smoking, ink-stained wretches like her Post staff. Graham took over as publisher from her husband, who had committed suicide, and much is made of her customary deference to an all-male board (old, white, and pasty-faced) in matters like the paper’s upcoming IPO. In fact, she has far closer personal ties to the CIA, the Pentagon, and other branches of government run by the Beltway elite. She’s tight with McNamara and his family, so exposing him to further ugly scrutiny is AWK-ward. The Post has the good fortune of coming out at a time when we’re primed for more, more, more stories of women taking the difficult path. Mrs. Graham was not, by and large, a believer in spilling government secrets. In a 1988 address to the CIA, she said, “There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn’t … I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.” But in this case, she refused to bend to the Powers That Were.
The beauty of Streep’s performance is that you can see that essentially conservative Graham, even when she sides with Bradlee. Spielberg knows the movie is her show. He uses few of his signature tracking shots around her, and sees no need to ride in on her face the way he usually does when people gaze on imminent peril or effects to be generated later. Even more than Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, Streep holds our gaze by underplaying. As usual, she finds the music of the character. Her Mrs. Graham speaks in a light, airy voice with the faintest hint of the South. I can’t recall it rising above a murmur, even when Graham’s board (Tracy Letts plays the “adviser” who’s used to calling the shots) begins to patronize her and she needs to carve out space to hear her own thoughts.
It’s a joy to see Streep and Hanks play together, big movie stars locked into each other’s fields of gravity. Hanks’s readings are smart and quick: He knows he has to move the story along, and he still has his fastball. I do wish he had more of what he brought to a Q&A at the first big New York screening, when he broke the audience up with his impersonation of the aged, gravel-voiced Bradlee. But that was the Bradlee who’d embraced the caricature of himself — too much of it would have slowed The Post down.
I was disappointed that Spielberg didn’t lay on the Nixon-era paranoia a little thicker with spooky overhead shots à la Alan Pakula in Klute and All the President’s Men. But he clearly didn’t want to ape All the President’s Men. He wanted to make a crackling newspaper movie. I love how he lingers on devices that now seem impossibly quaint — manual typewriters and a vacuum chute that carries finished stories to a floor below, where they’re set in hot type. (Hot type!) Good actors keep their heads down and do fine, unshowy work, especially Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, who has a tense, funny scene pouring dimes into an alley pay phone in his quest to find Ellsberg, and Jesse Plemons as the disconcertingly young Post lawyer who reflects the weight of Nixon’s world in his face.
The Post has a few lines that border on civics lessons about the need for a free press as a check on a would-be imperial president’s power. But they seem fitting after shots of Nixon, who’s seen in silhouette in the window of the Oval Office railing on the phone at his subordinates. His words are vulgar, gangster-ish, too outlandish to be credible — and straight from the Nixon tapes. (That’s Nixon’s voice.) The thought of what’s being said in the Oval Office at this very moment is enough to thank God — and Spielberg — for The Post.