When the lights came up on after The Post, my friend and I turned to each other to declare it was the best movie of the year. I still stand by that, but in the couple of days that I have gone by since then I realize that it is probably not as it happened–there are too many little moments, like monologues about the freedom the press–but it is damn good story telling. For all you can say about Steven Spielberg and there is some bad, he knows how to spin a good yarn.
The story is that of the Washington Post, in 1971, deciding whether or not to publish what became known as the Pentagon Papers. The film opens with Daniel Ellsberg stealing them out of the Rand Corporation, where he worked. The New York Times gets the first pages, not the whole thing, and publishes them. The attorney general’s office gets an injunction against them, citing they are national security.
Then the Post gets their hands on 4,000 pages of the stuff, enough to get their own seat in first class. Editor Ben Bradlee wants to publish them, the injunction be damned. His boss is Katharine Graham, the publisher, friends to some of those in power, and a woman in a man’s world. Will they publish?
The answer is known to most, but it’s pretty thrilling watching the back and forth, the arguments for and against. The reporters vs. the lawyers, with Graham in between. The spine of her character is that she is an accidental publisher: her father owned the paper, and when he died the job went to Graham’s husband, She says that was how it was then–there was no consideration that she would get the job, that just wasn’t a woman’s prerogative. She’s prone to listen her board (the head of which is fine performance by Tracy Letts), but she trusts Bradlee implicitly.
This has been said before, but Streep is wonderful. You can see her thoughts reflected on her face, her struggle against publishing material that will hurt her friends (notably former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who was on the record as saying the U.S. couldn’t win the war back in 1965 but troops getting sent over anyway).
Tom Hanks plays Bradlee, and while he doesn’t feel as right as Jason Robards in the same part in All the President’s Men, he’s fine. He enjoys the game, stopping to tell a secretary, “This is fun.” In this film we see Bradlee’s home life. There’s an amusing scene in which his daughter cleans up selling lemonade while all the reporters are in his house.
The Post plays like a spy movie, with furtive phone calls and a literal spy, an intern sent to the Times to see if he can find out what they’ve got. There’s hardly a moment of let up–I don’t think I checked the time once.
The Post is strangely relevant, as we are again in a time of combative attitudes between the White House and the press. Actual Nixon tapes are used to hear his reaction, one of them funny in the context of today’s administration. We also get a little epilogue that sets All the President’s Men up as a sort of sequel.
Of course Spielberg is overly sentimental, especially with a speech by Streep at the end. It’s boilerplate, but it’s true, and it’s nice to hear it in the U.S. at this time.