Review: “The Post”

3.5 out of 5 stars.

The year is 2018, not 1971, and most of us get our news from the internet, not from newspapers.  Yet Steven Spielberg’s new drama “The Post” is as timely as ever, raising questions about the first amendment, about a woman’s ability to be a leader in a male-dominated industry, about government corruption, and about just how difficult it really is to tell the truth.

The film revolves around The Washington Post which, just a year out from its ground-breaking coverage of the Watergate scandal, was not yet a big national news outlet, and still a family-run company only just on the brink of going public.  Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), is the first female publisher of a major newspaper, having inherited control after her husband committed suicide, and her fellow male coworkers and board members often belittle her ability to make decisions, so she frequently feels like she’s out of her depth.  Her uncertainties really come into play when The New York Times begins leaking the Pentagon Papers, classified documents obtained by former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) that reveal that the American government, throughout several presidential administrations, hid from the public just how poorly the Vietnam War was going—that they knew the U.S. couldn’t win, but they kept sending soldiers over there.  After the Nixon administration employs a court injunction to prevent the Times from publishing any more of the papers, Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) acquires the documents from Ellsberg.  Post editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) wants to publish, knowing that a story this big could cement the paper’s importance, but others, including the Post’s lawyers and board members, are against it, knowing that the Nixon administration could bring criminal charges against them if they do so.  The final decision, ultimately, comes down to Kay.

The Post

Meryl Streep is brilliant as Kay—although, when is Meryl Streep ever not brilliant?  Her character is not a woman trying to be masculine in order to fit into her male-dominated environment; she gets by on her own strengths, and Streep does a fine job showing that this woman is more than capable, if she can get past her own doubts about herself.  Her character is also very witty and has great chemistry with Hanks, who is a joy to watch even when playing a rather clichéd brash newspaperman type.  Spielberg rightly allows the actors to dominate almost every scene, whether it’s a quiet conversation or a group of characters all talking over each other (something this film has plenty of).  The supporting cast is filled with great actors, including Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Jesse Plemons, Alison Brie, and Michael Stuhlbarg, but the standout is Odenkirk’s Ben Bagdikian, a reporter determined to hunt down the big story.

This film plays up the importance of The Washington Post’s role in leaking the Pentagon Papers; most of that credit belongs to the New York Times.  While this film works well as a prologue to the Post’s critical coverage of Watergate that shaped the American political landscape of the 1970s, “The Post” is less about the actual Pentagon Papers than it is about the decisions that went in to publishing them.  While on the surface, sharing the truth with the public is a no-brainer, Spielberg shows here that it isn’t so easy.  Reputations, careers, and even lives are at stake; through quick cuts and rapid-fire dialogue, Spielberg creates tension and reveals the urgency to the situation, as a decision must be made before the papers go to press.

Many of the parallels drawn between the American cultural and political landscape of 1971 and today are eerie, from government cover-ups to a President at war with the media.  But the issue of gender equality really resonates here.  It’s hard not to cringe watching Kay, the only woman in the room, try to chime in to the conversation, having studied so hard to make sure she knew everything and was prepared, only to be talked over by the men in the room.  It’s Sarah Paulson, who plays Bradlee’s wife Tony, who brings the point home, telling her husband how hard it must be for her to never be fully taken seriously, because she is a woman.

Despite feeling modern in many respects, the film also generates a good deal of nostalgia for good old-fashioned investigative journalism, in a time before the internet and social media turned journalism into a race to be first, whether the story is accurate or not.  But “The Post” isn’t as engrossing as films like “All the President’s Men” or the more recent “Spotlight,” which draw the audience in to unraveling a conspiracy along with the characters.  In fact, Spielberg seems to try to compensate for this by tying in an unnecessary scene at the end setting up the Watergate scandal.  That’s probably why “The Post,” despite its cast and director and screenplay and John Williams score, is good, but not great.  But as evidence that history tends to repeat itself, it works very well indeed.

Runtime: 116 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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