Steven Spielberg’s latest, and very ambitious, opus is no All The President’s Men, but The Post is good film-making nonetheless.
The Post can be categorized as a “serious” Spielberg offering in the vein of Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, and most recently, Bridge of Spies. Underscoring those bodies of work is the fact that Spielberg brings back old pal Tom Hanks to take a leading role in his latest, that of indomitable former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee.
This film, set during the turbulent early 70s when Richard Nixon was in office and the Vietnam War was as unpopular as ever, definitely mirrors the toxic White House vs. Press situation in Washington today. That is, a president under fire from all angles and facing a growing scandal, tries to quash the first amendment rights of a newspaper giant like The New York Times — as well as its cousin in Washington, The Post. Sound familiar?
Where Spielberg does depart slightly is putting a strong female in the lead role of protagonist, she being the excellent Meryl Streep as Post publisher Kay Graham. She eats this movie up, there is no other way to put it.
As many of Spielberg’s greatest movies have similar themes, crises and resolutions, we will sprinkle this review with references to Saving Private Ryan, with a nod to Jaws for shock value and pure entertainment. In this case, Streep’s Graham is The Post’s Capt. Miller. Graham is world weary publisher and widower who has seen a lot and leads her troops into publishing battle despite many obstacles. The Private Ryan is represented in this movie as the elusive Pentagon Papers.
Hanks’ Bradlee is akin to SPR’s Sgt. Horvath, in that he is the bloodied veteran on her journalist team and a much needed sarcastic conscience to fall back on. The movie unfolds with the leaker of the Pentagon Papers himself, Daniel Ellsberg (played by Matthew Rhys), embedded with the troops in a deteriorating situation in Vietnam. The opening few minutes, while not quite the opening beach scene from Saving Private Ryan, are fairly jarring in their spare look at combat in Southeast Asia.
After those three to four minutes, the movie becomes ensconced in the power center of Washington and to a lesser extent, downtown Manhattan where the Times is printed (yes, newspapers were solely ink and paper creations not that long ago).
Back at home, Ellsberg drops dime on the Nixon administration, and a few presidencies before that, by leaking out choice samples of the exhaustive Pentagon Papers, officially titled: United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense. Pulitzer Prize winning Times writer Neil Sheehan (Justin Swain) publishes a series of stories that scandalize the Nixon government and by extension former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood).
Cue the fireworks.
Folks at the Washington Post are, at first, quite uncomfortable at being scooped by the titanic Times. However, the government rolls into action, launching a Supreme Court case against the Times to halt further publication of the documents. It is at this impasse — similar in scope to the decisions faced before the pitched battle at the end of SPR — that Bradlee and Graham must decide whether or not to pursue a wider release.
Graham, who inherited the role of publisher when her husband committed suicide a few years previous, has the weight of the world on her shoulders. The Post needs to go public for a cash injection and she has to weigh the pros and cons (of which there are many) of releasing more of the Pentagon Papers while appeasing a board of governors, led by Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), who want things nice and quiet while wooing investors.
Streep is at her level best portraying a strong woman who must decide whether what is right trumps her desire to profit off the newspaper. That weighty decision isn’t made any easier in that in her previous life she cozied up at cocktail parties to the Washington elite, i.e. McNamara and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
Enter Bradlee, as the devil/angel forever interjecting himself into her now hectic life. He has already put a bulldog of a reporter on the case, Ben Bagdikian (a very good Bob Odenkirk), to try and find Ellsberg and the entire sheaf of documents floating out there like Private Ryan. There are many pitfalls awaiting Bagdikian, Bradlee, Graham et al, in their quest to uncover the truth, much like the ill-fated platoon in Saving Private Ryan. Not the least of which is Nixon’s fury, which he unleashes on the Post and the Times with a flurry of litigation, real and imagined.
It is during the hectic hunt for the Papers that the movie bogs down a bit. Spielberg could have edited things a bit tighter and lopped off 10 or 15 needless minutes here, and still would have had a great movie.
Bradlee, though a pillar of journalistic integrity, has a deep flaw, in that he was way too intimate with previous Democrat administrations. He cares not for the financial machinations going on in the background, but must also weigh his political leanings against uncovering the truth in the face of a Republican government’s wrath. Bradlee convinces Graham that the American people deserve the truth, saying that the way successive governments lied and covered up what was really going on in Southeast Asia, that those days had to end.
After a lot of cloak and dagger — including a trite meeting in a seedy hotel room — Bagdikian tracks down Ellsberg and comes into possession of the mountain of documents included in the Papers.
In a lighter moment, Odenkirk’s Bagdikian is seen flying on a plane with two boxes of incriminating papers strapped to the seat beside him. When a flight attendant makes a lighthearted enquiry about them, he blurts out, “oh, they’re just government secrets.”
Back in Washington, Graham is still wrestling with the decision, facing down her own insecurities and the problems created by cutting allegiances with old pals like McNamara. It is during these moments that Streep takes Graham from vapid socialite to iron fisted publisher and the transformation is fun to watch.
In the end, Bradlee and his team — without the aid of desktop publishing software — put together a sheaf of stories on the Papers (while the Times had to sit it out for a while due to the court case).
This is where the Jaws tie-in comes in. The shark in this case is Nixon and his administration, and Bradlee becomes the Hooper who remains steadfast in his resolve to bring the truth to light, helping to slay the shark while it swims in the water with him. Bradlee would later oversee the work done by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the Watergate Scandal that finally deep-sixed Nixon for good.
For her part, Graham is Chief Brody, perched precariously above the water as the shark bears down on her. While she doesn’t utter “smile, you SOB” and fire a perfect rifle shot, Graham does grimly face down not only Nixon and a powerful government, but the Post board of directors clamoring to keep her quiet too.