'The Post': Film Review

A vigorous, stirring true-life thriller.
12/22/2017

Steven Spielberg's latest film stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in a drama about The Washington Post's role in publishing the Pentagon Papers.

An unofficial prequel to All the President's Men some 41 years after the fact, The Post stirringly dramatizes the tale of how The Washington Post and its equivocating owner rose to the occasion by publishing the Pentagon Papers in June of 1971. Punchy and quick-pulsed, it's a fine example of that now-rare species, the big-city newspaper melodrama.

Commercially speaking, it's a fair question to ask how many people under 40 will be drawn to a tale rooted in such quaint realities as manual typewriters, daily deadlines, midnight print runs and reporters sneaking down to the street to use a pay phone so they won't be overheard speaking with confidential sources. And how many of them even know what the Pentagon Papers were? The answer is, a good number more will now. The spectacle of real characters played by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks standing up to a craven, mean-spirited president should resonate with many viewers of all ages, signaling a robust commercial career for this fast-paced true-life thriller.

A measure of the film's vitality no doubt stems from the incredible speed with which it was made: Spielberg only got the script in February and, as his two desired stars were both free at that moment, they plunged into production at once, at a pace akin to how Hollywood worked in the 1930s to '40s.

But a big difference with the old days is that veteran directors then tended to show their age, slowing down their storytelling and pacing once they got past 60 or so. Spielberg is now 70 but has scarcely lost a step; The Post possesses the same energy and vigor as the films he made decades ago.

In essence, the Pentagon Papers comprised a massive secret study instigated by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (without the knowledge of President Lyndon B. Johnson) and designed to fully document American involvement in Vietnam since the Truman administration. The official documents conclusively showed the long history of U.S. meddling in Vietnamese politics since the early 1950s, as well as the outright lying by the Johnson and then-current Nixon administrations about both U.S. actions there and the prospects for victory ever since American troops became combatants.

A contributor to the report, Daniel Ellsberg had been a State Department analyst on the ground in Vietnam for two years and was working for the RAND Corporation when he decided to leak the laboriously copied documents to reporter Neil Sheehan at The New York Times, which began running excerpts on June 13, 1971. When the Nixon administration blocked further publication, Ellsberg turned to The Washington Post, which had a long history of being cozy with successive administrations and was not known for rocking the political boat.

Written by young first-timer Liz Hannah, with emendations by Josh Singer (Spotlight), the sharply detailed script deftly balances the public and private aspects of the story as it charts both the physical machinations involved in getting the documents themselves and the vacillations of the Post leadership — specifically publisher Katharine Graham (Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) — over whether to step into the void left by their New York competitor and begin publication themselves.

It's a dramatic tale loaded with all manner of dynamics, political and personal, and Spielberg charges out of the gate at a brisk clip, extends his hand and all but enjoins the viewer to grab hold and be swept along for the ride. Secrecy is vital on all sides, and the stakes are high for everyone involved, from the journalists, who could be jailed for theft and conspiracy, to the administration, which is unknowingly marching down the path that will lead to Watergate.

At the outset, however, the biggest issue facing Graham is that of a public offering, which will put her company in the Fortune 500 and make her the first female in that august group of American business owners. But running her family's newspaper corporation is nothing she ever expected to do until her husband committed suicide; the “accidental boss” is nervous addressing large gatherings and uncomfortable making crucial business decisions, and most at home hosting dinner parties for Washington's elite.

There's plenty of exposition to be laid out, which the screenwriters distribute skillfully, an effort aided by the bold assurance with which the director zeroes in on essentials and then briskly moves on; the same expertise with which Spielberg has so often dealt with essential dramatic carpentry in his bigger scaled action-adventure features is applied to this more intimate, human-sized drama. This is a story dominated by men in coats and ties in visually uninspiring offices, but Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski keep the camera moving and the angles varied.

There's nice foreshadowing in the script when a Post staffer notices that prominent New York Times reporter Sheehan hasn't had a byline for three months; something must be cooking. Small, incidental scenes contribute nifty insights and shading: the Post sends a young reporter up to New York to sneak into the Times offices to try to find out what Sheehan is up to; an elite dinner at Graham's home concludes when the men and women retire to different rooms, as if it were still 19th century England; when Sheehan's first Pentagon Papers story is set to break in the Times the next morning, it's none other than McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) himself who calls his old friend Graham to alert her.

With Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell having legally blocked the Times from publishing any further stories after the second day, Washington Post assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk in an excellent change of pace) contrives to obtain more Papers from a fretful Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) in a motel room loaded with them. Once again, there's privileged humor: Bagdikian insists to an annoyed Bradlee that he'll need two first-class seats in order to transport the prized documents.

But even with the Papers in their possession, Graham and Bradlee remain on tenterhooks about whether or not to publish; they could end up in prison, and the brand-new Post shares could become worthless overnight. There's no real suspense, of course, as we know the outcome, but the swift and observant storytelling sustains interest all the way in a film that doesn't overstay its welcome despite its vast cast of characters and the considerable ground it covers.

Among numerous fine strokes is having the administration's view come directly from the horses' mouths; as a telephoto lens glimpses the Oval Office and silhouettes of its occupants from a distance, the actual recordings of Nixon and others are heard threatening the journalists over the phone. And once the fateful decision to publish is made, Spielberg indulges in a good old-fashioned montage devoted to the newspaper printing process, from typesetting to the paper rolling through the presses to the bundled copies being dropped at newsstands before dawn.

While a fair amount of time is spent in the newsroom, The Post doesn't live there to the extent that All the President's Men did. Editor Bradlee's office looks virtually identical, but the big communal space looks a bit grayer and less vibrant as served up by production designer Rick Carter and Kaminski than it did as conceived by George Jenkins and Gordon Willis, in those respective positions, under Alan J. Pakula's astute direction.

As good as Hanks is as the veteran Washington insider who likes to think he's never compromised coverage despite his close friendship with JFK and many other politicians, the actor doesn't quite have the gravelly voice of experience and authority in the role that Jason Robards did in his Academy Award-winning performance as Bradlee; maybe it's just because Hanks doesn't look convincing smoking (a cigarette package is always around but Hanks rarely lights up or takes a drag).

However, Hanks provides a fine foil and, ultimately, partner in potential crime for Streep's Graham, a figure who didn't even appear in All the President's Men. Streep emphasizes the woman's reticence and uncertainties at first, her preference for the intimate settings and home over boardrooms and public forums. But even in late middle-age she grows, finding first her footing, then an ability to trust her own instincts, speak her mind and overrule her valued advisers and experts. It's a performance that blossoms slowly and credibly.

Any number of supporting players have a few moments to really shine, notably Greenwood as a very convincing McNamara, Rhys as the perturbed Ellsberg, Bradley Whitford in a composite role as one of Graham's most powerful advisers and Jesse Plemons as a hard-charging attorney.

In the unavoidable straight-up comparison with All the President's Men, the edge decidedly goes to the older film. The journalistic journey of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein was momentous, led to an unprecedented historical result and was captured with just the right balance of quick-wittedness and gravitas. The comparative breeziness of The Post is congenial and welcome on its own terms, but the main thing here is Katharine Graham's taking hold of her inheritance. It takes little away from what the team here has done to say that its thematic predecessor has more weight and import.

One element that proves too predictable and ordinary is the score by the normally great longtime Spielberg collaborator John Williams. It's a rote-sounding job that frankly feels tossed off.

Production companies: Amblin Entertainment, Pascal Pictures, Star Thrower Entertainment
Distributor: Fox
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
Director
: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Amy Pascal, Kristie Macosko Krieger
Executive producers: Tom Karnowski, Josh Singer, Adam Somner, Tim White, Trevor White
Director of photography: Janusz Kaminski
Production designer: Rick Carter
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Editor: Michael Kahn, Sarah Broshar
Music: John Williams
Casting: Ellen Lewis

Rated PG-13, 116 minutes

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