One doesn’t typically associate Steven Spielberg with radical acts of protest.
Yet he started filming “The Post” in May and now it’s being released in December. That makes it among the first movies to be shot, edited and brought to theaters entirely during the Trump era, an achievement of great significance given that the story it tells is a tribute to the power and importance of journalism in a broad sense and, more specifically, to the bravery of a woman making a hard decision in the face of a sea of skeptical men.
It is about The Washington Post’s decision to defy a court order obtained by the Nixon Administration in 1971 and publish the Pentagon Papers, the Department of Defense study of the decades of deception at the highest levels of government that went into the planning and selling of the Vietnam War.
With Tom Hanks expertly stepping into the role of legendary editor Ben Bradlee, most famously portrayed by Jason Robards in “All the Presidents Men,” and scenes of frenetic newsroom activity that will deeply move anyone who believes in the nobility of this profession, the movie offers a clinical and matter-of-fact dissection of the Post editorial team’s efforts to publish the papers following The New York Times’ earthshaking scoop.
It is a great journalism movie in a purely visceral sense. Spielberg and screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer ground the daily stresses and procedures in authentic terrain; the small details feel precisely right. At the same time, the filmmaker conjures up his masterful gift for generating suspense and high drama around the inexorable pull of the deadline, the thrill of a meaningful lead and the collective sense of applying truth to power on a grand scale.
The brilliance of “The Post” — and the characteristic that sets it apart from other movies that have offered similar valentines to the Fourth Estate — is precisely the reason it focuses on The Washington Post’s experience with the Pentagon Papers rather than the Times’. It recognizes that the publication and Supreme Court ruling that allowed it stand as landmark moments for the First Amendment, but there’s an equally meaningful story to be found on the sidelines.
Meryl Streep plays Kay Graham, the iconic Post publisher, who must juggle competing interests when the Pentagon Papers publication opportunity poses the prospect of jeopardizing the paper’s badly-needed IPO. With her all-male board of directors pushing her to avoid publication for those financial reasons, she encounters a pervasive lack of respect for her authority or capacity to make such a decision.
It seems as if nothing less than the weight of the free world rests on her shoulders — she has the most to lose of anyone in question here — and in a movie about a brave and inspiring assertion of American principles in the face of oppressive obstruction, she exemplifies that spirit most of all.