In 1971, the Pentagon Papers leaked to the American public, revealing years of government lies concerning Vietnam during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. Journalists shed light on America’s misdeeds, causing a widespread mistrust of the government and sparking massive protests against the president — sound familiar?
Steven Spielberg, one of the most beloved directors of all time, dramatizes these events in “The Post,” using historical events to offer a very modern criticism of America and a timeless celebration of the free press. Teaming up with “America’s mom and dad,” Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, respectively, Spielberg creates a dynamic film that balances societal statement with a story that’s enthralling in its own right.
Streep plays Katharine Graham, the groundbreaking publisher of The Washington Post. At this time, the Post focuses mostly on local issues, but Graham works frequently with the Post’s managing editor, Ben Bradlee (Hanks), on day-to-day operations, attempting to broaden the paper’s scope. When The New York Times publishes excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, the Post desperately searches for some way to publish a story that matches the Times’ bombshell.
This comprises most of the film’s opening act, a fairly breezy half hour, taking time to introduce the audience to its many characters, almost exclusively played by brilliant television actors, including Alison Brie, Bob Odenkirk, Carrie Coon and David Cross.
When the American government shuts down The New York Times’ publication of classified information, the burden is placed on the rest of the nation’s papers to pick up the slack, and Bradlee sends his reporters out, determined to find more information. At this point, the feel of the film lands somewhere between a tense thriller and a crime caper, pulling viewers to the edges of their seats but always slowing down for a joke that lets the audience take a breath.
As the Post scrambles to find the Pentagon Papers, Spielberg also follows Graham in her daily life. A woman of high social status, Graham interacts regularly with individuals identified as dishonest in the leaked documents, including trusted confidante and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). As Graham goes about her operations at the Post, she sees she can no longer hold a relationship with individuals who could be the subject of articles published by her paper.
The subplot that investigates the relationship between Graham and McNamara elevates “The Post” from a simple biopic to a higher level. Spielberg and writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer clearly argue that if the press is not independent and unbiased, democracy will die in darkness.
Meanwhile, Streep carries the film, showing how much more effort Graham must put in as a woman, fighting against resistance from the newspaper’s board of directors at every turn.
As always, the direction of Steven Spielberg is impeccable, using long, unbroken and dynamic takes to make the actions of journalists look like a blockbuster superhero film. One scene in particular has a room full of journalists researching, but will leave audiences every bit as nervous as they were in the equally stressful climax of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
With “The Post,” an entire Hollywood Walk of Fame assembles to recount one of America’s greatest journalistic legends. The timing of the film speaks for itself, offering a blistering commentary on America’s federal government in the midst of one of the most unpopular administrations in recent memory.
Score: 4/5 star