It’s not a great time for newspapers. Financial difficulties, caused partly by the Internet, and partly because of the 24-hour TV news cycle haven’t helped. The man in the White House insisting that journalists are purveyors of “fake news” isn’t making things any easier.
So, thank goodness that Hollywood is still interested in telling a story about the power and importance of newspapers. “The Post” — a movie that looks in on the excitement and drama of what goes on in a newsroom — isn’t a rarity. Plenty of terrific newspaper films were made before it. Five that come to mind without checking IMDB are “Spotlight,” “Citizen Kane,” “All the President’s Men,” “The Front Page,” and “The Hudsucker Proxy.”
Like two of those films, “The Post” is based on fact. It’s about what happened when a highly classified, 7,000-page Department of Defense Report on the war in Vietnam, assembled under orders of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, was leaked to the New York Times. This was not good “news” for then-President Richard Nixon, as the war had been raging for years, and the detailed report proved, beyond doubt, that it was not winnable by the U.S. It established that our government had been sacrificing soldiers and dealing out fake news to the public decades before the term was coined.
The hero of the early part of the film is Dan Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a military analyst who worked on the study, and when his conscience got the better of him, made copies of it and gave portions to the Times. That was in March 1971. The Times began publishing “The Pentagon Papers” three months later, and did so until Nixon’s Department of Justice halted publication with a temporary restraining order.
But “The Post” is about the Washington Post, not the New York Times. It’s about the then-regional D.C. newspaper that had Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) as its editor and Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) as its publisher, a position she inherited when her husband Philip died a few years earlier.
Under the taut, but free-flowing direction of Steven Spielberg, the film delves into the snap decisions that had to be made when the Post folks were beaten to the punch by the Times, then realized that they had a chance to grab the reins and finish getting the story out there because that restraining order hadn’t been put on them.
A bit of bad timing for something that big — something that could put the Post staff in jail — is that they were going through cash-flow problems and were on the verge of selling the paper. But would they be able to sell if the government came down on them, too?
Making all of this even more timely (the screenwriters couldn’t know this was going to happen when they were working on the film) is today’s “me too” movement, and the fact that some of the people involved in the Post deal were concerned that the paper was being run by a woman.
Meryl Streep plays Kay Graham with a mixture of nervousness and courageousness. She’s worried about what might happen to her paper’s legacy, but she also knows the difference between right and wrong. Tom Hanks presents a Ben Bradlee who’s all determination and chutzpah. If he can find the same source that gave the information to the Times, he’s going to have it published in the Post. Let the editorial staff discussions and arguments begin.
Spielberg has, in the past, made brilliant films as well as bloated films. This is neither, but it sits comfortably leaning toward the brilliant side. It’s not just that he visually captures the inner workings of an old-fashioned newsroom, with pencil-gripping copy editors, pneumatic tubes, and typesetters working against a ticking-clock deadline. It’s also that he’s a master of pulling excellent performances out of his actors, and instinctively knowing where to place and/or move his cameras for the fullest emotional impact.
He’s telling a serious, straightforward, historical story, as he did with “Lincoln,” but this time it’s done without the least bit of heavy-handedness. Not every movie has to be labeled brilliant. It’s OK with me to “only” be able to call this one great.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer; directed by Steven Spielberg
With Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep