The Post; 1hr 55min; Rated PG-13
Movies about journalism often miss their mark. But "The Post" gets it just right, placing it in the same realm as what was a superb film about the Boston Diocese pedophilia scandal titled “Spotlight.” And there was, of course, a film that will be forever memorable, “All the President’s Men.”
But what makes Steven Spielberg's “The Post” so significant is, ultimately, not the story or the actors (Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep are excellent as Ben Bradlee, editor, and Katherine Graham, owner of the paper) but the context. In other words, though it takes place in 1971, the importance of a free press today is as relevant as it was then.
The press, also known as the Fourth Estate, is as essential to a vital and robust democracy as are the other three branches of government. In 1971, Richard Nixon loathed the press, especially The Washington Post and The New York Times. As one character says emphatically (Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara), if you print the story you are in possession of, Nixon will use all of the power of his presidency to destroy your paper. He spoke those words to Graham, who understood that the decision facing her — whether to publish what became known as "The Pentagon Papers," which comprised thousands of pages that, in the aggregate, demonstrated that the government had been lying about Vietnam for decades — was placing the paper in harm’s way, a paper that had been in her family since the 1930s.
The backstory is that a Rand Corp. employee, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), stole and then leaked the report (commissioned by McNamara), initially to The New York Times in June of 1971. After a fraction of their content was published over three days, the Nixon administration was granted a court order preventing the Times from continuing. It was then that Ellsberg turned to the Post and made available the same documents. The Post, in the midst of selling shares and about to go public, struggled with a decision that for Graham and Bradlee was excruciating and would eventually involve a ruling by the Supreme Court. The dilemma was to print now or wait for the court.
That’s the essence of the narrative. But what remains unsaid, at least explicitly, is the role that newspapers play in the life of our republic. For most of you who are reading this review, I’m assuming that newspapers were part of your life experience. They have always been there, taken for granted: local, national and international news plus sports, business and even the comics. People sitting in cafes or park benches, holding pages before them like white sails. If told that there would come a day when papers would be in jeopardy, well, it would be all but impossible to imagine; however, that is what has been gradually occurring over the last decade or more. It would be easy to point to the internet for causation, but I’m not sure.
But take a moment and give thanks that not all newsprint has disappeared. History does repeat itself, and we have once again a Nixon in the White House, the purveyor of the accusation that the press is “fake,” and “the enemy of the people.” An astonishing statement, but also historically familiar. But while the president spins his vitriol regarding the news and reporters, newspapers are experiencing a renaissance. The Post and the Times are sending out their reporters in search of the truth (be it about Russia or countless other ancillary stories about interfering with our past election) and have relentlessly held the government accountable. As Bradlee says in the film (or was it Kay Graham?), “We have to be the check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?”
Who will indeed? Every household in America, today, right now, should subscribe to a paper. For without this institution, our democracy will be diminished. Which is the essence of “The Post.”