By Liam Lacey
Steven Spielberg's new film, The Post, takes place mostly in 1971, when The Washington Post published the Pentagon Papers. But it unmistakably evokes the year, 2017, and the fight between a demagogic American president and the aroused press.
Assembled in a brisk 10 months following Donald Trump's inauguration, The Post is led by A-plus actors Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. The movie bustles along, with a smart balance of public turmoil and private drama, which resolves in a rousing affirmation of liberal democratic values.
Just don't expect Lincoln: The Post. This feels less like a rallying call for the Resistance than a scoop of warm comfort food: As in: We've made it through this before, folks!
The source of contention here is “The Pentagon Papers, aka: United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967,” a secret study by Lyndon Johnson's Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, on American involvement in Vietnam from the Truman presidency onward. It revealed how successive administrations lied to the U.S. congress and citizens about both the motives for and extent of the war.
Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst who had contributed to the report, leaked the study to The New York Times, in June, 1971. When the Nixon administration legally blocked further publication on the grounds of national security, The Washington Post picked up the story. The publication of the Papers became a test case about the values of freedom of the press and a first step in the eventual downfall of the Nixon administration (whose dirty tricks team got caught breaking in the act of the Watergate break-in a year after the Papers became public).
With a script by novice screenwriter Liz Hannah (supplemented by Spotlight writer, Josh Singer), The Post splits its focus between the bustle of the newsroom and the business of getting the documents, under the rule of Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and the upstairs realm of patrician publisher Katharine Graham (Streep).
In Alan J. Pakula's 1976 film, All the Presidents' Men, Post publisher, Graham barely rated a mention. But she's at the moral center here. Graham, whose family owned the Post and whose husband had been publisher until his suicide in 1963.
The movie frames her decision to publish as her "lean in" moment. A woman - used to being told what to do - asserts her authority, defying a team of men in suits who don't think she has the "resolve" to lead.
At the outset, however, Graham's problem is that The Post, not even the dominant newspaper in Washington at the time, is about to go public. And she wants to justify to the new board the continued spending on first-rate editorial coverage. When the big round table meeting takes place, Graham, wincing, lets her business advisor (Tracy Letts) read her notes for her.
Meanwhile, a case for the importance of experienced reporters is unfolding before them: The Post editors have noticed that The New York Times' star reporter, Neil Sheehan, hasn't had a byline in a long while and assume he's working on something big. Bradlee peels $40 out of his wallet and sends a cub reporter to New York to spy on the competition.
While Graham hosts one of a succession of fancy dinners in her home (where after dessert, men and women still retire to separate rooms), she gets a heads-up from her friend, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood); The Times is about to break with the big story. After the Times splash, and the next day's court injunction against further publication, Bradlee and his team see a chance to pounce on the story’s tail before it goes back in the mouse hole.
In a lively old-fashioned investigative sequence reminiscent of seventies’ conspiracy thrillers (pay-phones, motel assignation), assistant managing editor, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), tracks down Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) and acquires 4,000 pages of the report, out of order and without an index.
Bradlee and Graham must choose: Do they sort the papers, find the stories and publish, risking jail and the collapse of their newspaper? Or do they wait in the hopes the injunction is reversed, losing the scoop and potentially, seeing the suppression of a an historically important story?
Within this melodramatic dilemma, with its foregone conclusion and unambiguous moral choices, there's a certain level of corn. Streep offers a performance that is, typically, both mannered and masterly, an accumulation of thrust jaw movements, fluttering hands and lashes.
And, when the moment calls for it, she unleashes a regal tilt of the chin and the nostril flare, when, dressed in a gold kaftan like an aroused warrior-queen, she makes the call to publish. Hanks commits to the idea of Bradlee as a colourful, old-time newsman, who calls underlings “kid” and, at times, he comes dangerously close to twinkling. At one point, he declares, in an almost pantomime aside: "My God, the fun!"
In many ways, The Post is fun, though the pleasures are less in its ideas than the depth of craft, including a wonderfully overqualified supporting cast (Sarah Paulson, Odenkirk, Letts, Bradley Whitford, Greenwood, Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods), who make each cameo a moment that counts.
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminskii and production designer Rick Carter have created a dialogue-driven movie that is full of movement and dynamic contrasts. The teal blues of the Post newsroom, with its low ceilings and fluorescent lights, make the journalists look appropriately drained. Scenes with Katherine Graham are balanced between the painterly softness of the publisher's genteel cocoon of a home and the paneled boardrooms she enters, stark masculine spaces which have the aura of hunting lodges.
Even that favourite visual cliche of the newspaper movie, the collage of rolling presses and papers hitting the street, is edited with a fresh ferocity, as “hot lead” type seems to be forged into word bullets for battle.
Finally, there's the depiction of the shadowy villain of our story, Richard Milhous Nixon himself, whose voice is first heard on his tapes, growling about his enemies. Later we see him, briefly, via a telephoto lens, through a White House window, that familiar hunched silhouette, like Dracula in his castle. We imagine the villagers, gathering below, flaming newspapers in hand.
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods, The Post opens at the Cineplex Varsity & VIP.