It’s hard to imagine a movie that’s more timely than Steven Spielberg’s “The Post.” The point: The Fourth Estate must be a check on political power.
That sounds awfully didactic, but “The Post” isn’t preaching. The movie, instead, focuses on Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the owner of the Washington Post, who is trying to make the transition from D.C. socialite to responsible power player after the suicide of her husband.
She’s also trying to take her newspaper public by selling stock in the company, so she doesn’t need any trouble that could affect the price. But since this is 1971, and since this is near the beginning of one of the biggest political crises in our nation’s history, it’s unlikely that Graham can stay in her comfort zone for long.
The crisis: Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) has stolen the Pentagon Papers and given them to the New York Times, which has begun publishing the secrets of those papers. Among the biggest revelations: U.S. leaders knew that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable but kept sending troops to Southeast Asia, to kill and be killed. And these leaders lied to the American public and Congress about the war and its scope.
The study was commissioned by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), a close friend of Graham. And he warns her early in the movie that the Times will be publishing news about him in an unflattering way. That’s an understatement, of course.
When the Times is slapped with a temporary court order preventing further disclosures, it’s up to Graham and the Post, which has gotten a batch of the papers, too, to decide whether to support the Times and publish its own information.
For journalism historians, this can be viewed as an odd way to talk about the Pentagon Papers. The big drama involved the Times, not the Post. The Times led the way, and the Post followed. But this is more about the growth of the Post from an essentially regional newspaper into a national powerhouse. And more importantly from a storytelling perspective, it’s about the evolution of a woman, Graham, into a journalism icon.
As Graham, Streep is spectacular. She’s understated. She’s unsure of herself. She seeks advice and suffers such advice when it’s obvious that she’s facing condescension. She also proves to be a formidable equal to her hard-charging editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks).
Bradlee and his newsroom minions have mightily annoyed the 1971 White House, where Richard Nixon resides. And when the Post finally decides to go ahead with the publication of the papers, even though such a move might imperil the upcoming initial public offering of stock in the Post, it’s the beginning of a long war with the White House. (The Watergate break-in isn’t too far behind.)
As you might expect, some people will see parallels with the current White House, which derides the Post and other newspapers and networks as purveyors of fake news. And it’s clear that Spielberg is aware of these parallels.
The movie was filmed while Spielberg was waiting for the special effects to be completed on another one of his new movies, “Ready Player One,” based on the novel by Austin’s Ernie Cline.
Liz Hannah and Josh Singer collaborated on the script, and Spielberg managed to get two of today’s biggest stars — Streep and Hanks — to join a supporting cast that includes Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson and Bob Odenkirk.
As Bradlee, Hanks doesn’t quite measure up to the standard set by Jason Robards in “All the President’s Men,” but he’s serviceable.
The movie was shot in spring 2017, and its arrival on the big screen so soon is a minor miracle in Hollywood, where such projects usually take at least two years.
Even the most hard-headed cynical journalist will probably smile with pride as “The Post” progresses. It’s hard not to celebrate when truth prevails over lies, especially when the lies are coming from those in the most powerful positions.
But the main reason to see “The Post” isn’t political. It’s Streep. She gives one of the best performances of her career, and certainly the best in recent years.
Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bruce Greenwood, Tracy Letts
Rating: PG-13, language, brief war violence
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes