The Post” is kind of like the Yankees of movies. A Steven Spielberg directed film about the Pentagon Papers starring Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep and a murderer’s row of all your favorite television character actors (Jesse Plemons! Bob Odenkirk! Carrie Coon! Sarah Paulson!)? It doesn’t even seem fair. Is there any way it wouldn’t be great or least very good?
That Spielberg shot and is releasing it in under a year was perhaps the only potential handicap. Would it feel rushed? Unfinished? Eastwood-ian? The astonishing thing is that while there are a few clunkers (as if a parody, the film actually opens in Vietnam to the sound of helicopters and Creedence Clearwater Revival), on the whole “The Post” is meat and potatoes Spielberg in the best possible way.
He is directing off of a script from first time screenwriter Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, who also wrote the investigative journalism drama “Spotlight.” Instead of a deep dive into the reporting that led to the Pentagon Papers being exposed, “The Post” focuses in on the Washington Post executives who risked everything to make it happen. The reporting here is the side story.
Streep plays Katharine Graham, the new publisher of The Washington Post, who is taking her family’s paper public in an effort to save it. Hanks is the editor Ben Bradlee, who is trying to elevate it from hometown rag to national necessity on par with The New York Times. We meet them both at an interesting moment, when the most pressing matter is that they’ve been banned from covering Tricia Nixon’s wedding and that the style coverage is perhaps a little too snarky for the sensibilities of D.C. society ladies. Then The New York Times comes out with their first story about the damning Vietnam report and, well, everything changes.
The film actually begins on Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) in Vietnam, and the moment he decides that he can’t handle the lies of Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who in private says that things are devolving in the war, but then boasts to the press that things are improving. Spielberg takes us along as Ellsberg steals the reports and starts the long and tedious process of copying them (somehow Spielberg is able to make even a copy machine seem thrilling). Indeed, while “The Post” is not much more than people talking, Spielberg infuses every scene with tension and life and the grandeur of the ordinary that he’s always been so good at conveying.
And while there is an interesting tick tock of will-they-won’t-they publish the papers that propels the film forward, at the heart of the story is Graham, an obviously smart and capable woman who is full of doubt, and is doubted by nearly everyone around her. Her father had given the paper to her husband and when he died, she took control. As she tells her daughter (Alison Brie) midway through the film, when she took control, she was a middle-aged woman who had never held a job. Streep plays her with daring reserve, as she finds herself unable to speak in key meetings, or stand up for herself as her board of directors is disrespecting her in earshot.
Hanks, meanwhile is having a ball as Bradlee, a charming and crass cad with a mission and an army of capable and doting reporters around him trying their best to get the story. Bradlee and Graham clash as editors and publishers do, but there is a foundation of respect there too and it is a joy to watch Hanks and Streep share the screen.
Hannah and Singer’s script is always interesting, and delves into fascinating topics including the casual sexism of the time, and the often too close relationships between D.C. journalists and the subjects they’re supposed to cover. That we get to see Streep and Hanks delivering the lines is almost just an added bonus.
“The Post,” a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “for language and brief war violence. Running