“The Post” is a film about a segment of arguably the most important and influential times in the history of print media, the 1970s. On the heels of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the heartbreaking and sobering tragedy of May 4, 1970 at Kent State University, American citizens had become progressively disillusioned with the sugary veneer that their leaders had been presenting them for decades. They were finally ready for an honest picture of their country. And print media was, in turn, finally able to provide them with the information they deserved to see.
The film follows the story of the 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers are a 37-volume, 4,000-page secret study done by the United States government about the country’s involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. In part, the report details how President Lyndon Johnson lied to Congress, and the American people, about US involvement in Southeast Asia. It was revealed that the war was purposely expanded for domestic perception and global political advantage, though it was a conflict (long-acknowledged internally) as one unwinnable. Thousands of young lives were lost in the process.
“The Post” picks up the story when Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), who had worked on the study, appropriates a number of volumes of the Papers, which he then leaks to the New York Times. The Times staff carefully combs through them and goes public with a portion of what they have found. This enrages then-President Richard Nixon, who will not have the White House shamed. He attempts to impede further publication with a legal injunction to be decided by the Supreme Court.
Triggered by being scooped and hungry to compete, the Washington Post staff then obtains the information themselves. Facing the same legal liability as the Times, Post brass must then weigh their duty to the American public against the legal, financial and personal ramifications that they will experience if they themselves pick up the mantle of their competitor and continue reporting. The result is a sizzling thriller wrought with historical ramifications.
Meryl Streep is dynamic as Washington Post owner Kay Graham. Her performance is both fragile and elegant as she is forced to choose whether to publish accounts of the doings of her close friends, in particular Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the former Secretary of Defense who was an architect of the study. I think that the sacrifices that the pursuit of truth requires of us all are often overlooked. It is relatively simple to criticize or expose a stranger—a quick visit to social media will prove this to be the case—but to trumpet the truth in the face of personal consequences is an act of indisputable courage. Streep’s portrayal of this struggle is relatable and authentic.
Tom Hanks is charming as the audacious and blustery Washington Post Editor-in-Chief Ben Bradlee. He represents Bradlee with a sense of pluck and reckless abandon that is idealized and inspiring.
Director Steven Spielberg fluently weaves a sense of “now” into the film. One of the many stories of 2017 cinema was the emergence of multiple categories of strong female lead characters in media narratives of all types. Though set in 1971, the subplot about Graham looking to take the Post public is a prime example of show-don’t-tell filmmaking. In a handful of scenes, Streep’s Graham is presented as the tenacious figure entering an evincive pit of male vipers to discuss the future of the paper. Color and camera angle did more to develop the texture of her character in these moments than any bits of dialog reasonably would. Spielberg struck a balance that feels both modern and honest.
Reminiscent of films such as “All the President’s Men” and “The Paper,” “The Post” focuses less on how the story came to be and more on will the story come to be. This approach provides for not only a corker of a third act, but some genuine talking points after the theater experience ends.
I grew up loving the written word. I would spend hours reading books on lazy afternoons. In high school, I kept journals filled with accounts of the mundane or goofy things I’d do with my friends. I soon came to love novelists like Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) and Hunter S. Thompson (Hell’s Angels), who straddled and massaged the often fuzzy line between author and journalist. I adored the artistry of the writer but the power the reporter wielded was fascinating to me. Journalists were gatekeepers of the Truth—and that is a sacred vocation.
I truly don’t know if the conceit of ballsy, courageous, authentic journalism is a “thing” anymore. With a 24-hour news cycle anemic with smoke-and-mirror political reporting and thinly veiled infotainment choking daily headlines, the time of honest, compassionate journalism may just be a thing of the past. A film like “The Post” serves to remind viewers that there was a time not so long ago when the Truth wasn’t just something, it was everything.
Ted Zep can be found daily at SuperNoBueno.Wordpress.com.