Spielberg rolls the presses in heavyweight First Amendment drama
Starring Tom Hanks & Meryl Streep
Directed by Steven Spielberg
The stars align, in more ways than one, for this historically based political drama about the leak of top-secret Washington documents in 1971 detailing the long, pot-stirring political and military involvement of the United States in Vietnam.
The release of the so-called “Pentagon Papers” became a newspaper bombshell, decades before computers, the Internet or WikiLeaks. Their exposure of systemic government lies and secrecy about the war in Vietnam incurred the wrath of then-President Richard Nixon, who wanted to persecute the “leakers” for treason and bring down the boom on First Amendment rights of the free press.
In The Post (originally titled The Papers), heavyweight director Steven Spielberg top-loads his cast with superstar actors and fills out the ranks with an outstanding ensemble of supporting players. Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham, the Washington, D.C., socialite and the first female publisher of the family-owned Washington Post. Tom Hanks is her crusading, veteran editor, Ben Bradlee.
Look, there’s Alison Brie, as Graham’s daughter and sounding board, Lally. Bob Odenkirk is reporter Ben Bagdikian, whose contact at the government-backed Rand Corporation, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), exposes the massive cover-up—which spanned four presidential administrations—and delivers 7,000 pages of documents to the Post and its competitor, The New York Times. Carrie Coon plays Post writer Meg Greenfield; Bruce Greewood is former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a major architect of the Vietnam War under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
And keep your eyes peeled for Jesse Plemons, Bradley Whitford, Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, David Cross, Zach Woods and Michael Stuhlbarg, who’s having a tremendous year with his other roles in the awards-buzz films Call Me By Your Name and The Shape of Water.
Speaking of awards, The Post is looking good on the road to the Oscars in March. Although it didn’t pick up any Golden Globes on Jan. 7, it was named the Best Film of the Year by the National Board of Review at a ceremony long considered to officially kick off the trophy race, and Hanks and Streep were given top acting honors by the organization.
Hanks, especially, is outstanding, portraying Bradlee as a tough, gruff newsroom bulldog who won’t give up the chase—or back off on his bite—until he sinks his teeth into the truth. Streep conveys the complex, often conflicted spheres in which Graham circulated as a Washington trendsetter who hobnobbed with presidents and the D.C. elite, and operated as a businesswoman trying to keep her newspaper afloat in a sea of bottom-line male board members.
As he’s demonstrated in his wide-ranging films, including E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg knows how to make populist movies that are both epic in sweep and scale, but personal and intimate in their characters and their connectivity to audiences.
To a dramatic score from his go-to composer, Oscar-winning John Williams, he reminds us of the high stakes of the story. After three front-page scoops, the New York Times—which got the Pentagon Papers first—is barred by a federal injunction from publishing any more of the sensitive documents the government wants under lockdown. The court ban, and some old-fashioned newsroom legwork, gives the Post a lucky break to move into the breach. But publication by the Post, in light of the injunction, could send Graham and Bradlee to jail, put their newspaper out of business, and cost everyone else their jobs.
McNamara, Graham’s friend, warns her if she does publish, the president will crush her. “Nixon will muster the full power of the presidency,” he says. “And if there’s a way to destroy you, by God, he’ll find it.”
It becomes a landmark First Amendment battle that reaches all the way to the Supreme Court.
It also reaches through the years to reverberate with a timely contemporary chill. The distant echo of Nixon’s seething contempt for the press finds relevance in today’s political climate where the mainstream media is routinely attacked by the current president as “fake news.”
The Post deals with something that happened nearly half a century ago, a time when reporters used manual, clattery typewriters and coin-operated payphones and smoked cigarettes indoors. But it’s a rousing story that never gets old: How, once upon a time, a group of citizen-journalists believed a free press was worth fighting for, believed governments and presidents shouldn’t lie to their citizens and should be called out when they did, and believed exposing truth was worth taking tremendous risks.
And it suggests that right now is a really, really good time to be reminded of all that, all over again. Set the type, ink up the cylinders and roll the presses!
In wide release Jan. 12, 2018