The Post movie review: printing truth to power

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The Post green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Crackles with life and energy, depicting a grand adventure in journalism from almost half a century ago with vigor, suspense, and an urgent relevance for today.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast, big Spielberg fan
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, female coscreenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

Okay. Steven Spielberg has made movies about dinosaurs and sharks and aliens (lost and cute, invading and not cute, and just visiting and enigmatic) and adventurin’ archeologists and war horses and crime-predicting psychics and big friendly giants. It’s probably not difficult to make such things exciting. But this? The Post is a movie in which people sit around arguing about freedom of the press and journalistic ethics and IPOs. Papers are shuffled and xeroxed. Lawyers are consulted, and mostly just frown a lot in reply. The most visually dynamic the movie ever gets involves the setting of hot type — so quaint! — and the rattle of printing presses running off the next morning’s newspaper. And it is all completely riveting. Seriously, I had goosebumps on my arms watching tied-up bundles of newspapers being tossed onto trucks about to bring Truth to the world in time for breakfast.

She made the news today, oh boy...
She made the news today, oh boy…

The Post crackles with life and energy. The real-life events of almost half a century ago it depicts sizzle with vigor, suspense, and immediacy… and with an urgent relevance for today. Spielberg is surely a genius for having accomplished this alone. But also for bringing Tom Hanks (Inferno, Sully) and Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins, Suffragette) together onscreen for the first time. They blaze with such delicious chemistry that it’s astonishing to realize that no one has cast them opposite each other before. How has the obvious beauty of their pairing been overlooked until now? As, respectively, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and Post publisher Katharine Graham — at a key turning point for the newspaper in 1971 — their characters have nothing but a purely professional relationship, and a sometimes antagonistic one, at that. (The business end and the reporting end should not be entangled if the journalism is going to be good… and they get a bit entangled here, which becomes a source of conflict.) It’s not romantic chemistry I’m talking about, but a rapport of the purest movie-movie sort: these are two legendary actors at the tops of their games individually who spark into something cinematically incandescent together.

Hanks and Streep blaze with such delicious chemistry that it’s amazing to realize that no one has cast them together before.

What they are on fire over together is what turned out to be a signal event in the history of journalism, of holding a government to account, of the entire American experiment, in fact. What came to be known as the Pentagon Papers was a secret analysis of the historical roots of the Vietnam War and the US’s involvement in Southeast Asia in the decades after World War II, a work commissioned by Robert McNamara (here played by Bruce Greenwood: Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Gold), former Secretary of Defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The documents came to be known thus when they were leaked to The New York Times by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys: Burnt, Beau Brummell: This Charming Man) after he got frustrated with the stagnation of the war… a war that the Pentagon Papers proved was not winnable, something that the White House had known for many years and yet escalated anyway. “They knew we couldn’t win,” Ellsberg says here, “and still sent boys to die.”

At first the Post is playing catchup with the Times’s scoop, when it ran what would be the first of many revelations of the Pentagon Papers. And then the White House gets an injunction against any further info from the Pentagon Papers being published by the Times, so the Post steps up: it has gotten its hands on the documents too. But can they publish? Does that injunction apply to the Post as well? Wait, what? The White House has gone to court to stop a newspaper from publishing? This had never happened before, and it sounds pretty unAmerican. Indeed, Hanks’s Bradlee sums it up nicely: President Nixon is “taking a shit all over the First Amendment.”

Plotting a small rebellion in Ben Bradlee’s office...
Plotting a small rebellion in Ben Bradlee’s office…

The Post isn’t a courtroom drama: it’s not about the two newspapers fighting this clearly unconstitutional injunction with lawyers. (That all happens offscreen.) Something more fundamental is going on here: Bradlee and Graham have to decide whether, in this chilly environment, it’s worth taking the risk to publish in the first place. Bradlee is pretty gung-ho: he’d previously said that “the only way to assert the right to publish is to publish,” and that was only about their coverage of the wedding of Tricia Nixon, the president’s daughter, which the White House had banned a Post reporter from covering as punishment for past unfavorable stories. The Pentagon Papers story is infinitely more important, but Graham, with whom the buck ultimately stops, is in a tough spot. She’s about to take the family-run Post public, but the IPO can be scuppered by any controversy… and the paper’s publisher and editor being accused of treason — as this leak was deemed by the White House — would certainly qualify. Graham is already on thin ice as a woman holding unprecedented power in publishing and facing massive sexism. (It’s pretty astonishing that her brilliant battle against entrenched misogyny is only the second most important thing happening in The Post.) Would this double whammy simply be too much for investors to swallow?

It’s pretty astonishing that Katharine Graham’s brilliant battle against entrenched misogyny is only the second most important thing happening in The Post.

The Post never outright asks the questions Why should news be profitable? and Isn’t quality journalism a public service, not a business? but they are all over the film anyway. The smart script, by Liz Hannah (her feature debut) and Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Fifth Estate), is full of confrontations between money and power on one side and the imperative of speaking truth to that power on the other… and it comes down on the fourth estate’s side every time. (I love the imagery in the opening sequence of Ellsberg, embedded with troops in Vietnam on a fact-finding mission, as armed with his typewriter in precisely the same way as the soldiers are with their rifles. Xerox machines are a key weapon here, too.) Spielberg has given us a grand adventure in journalism that is so essential today, when once again the President of the United States is publicly bashing journalists and attempting to smear their reporting. The Post is an absolutely critical reminder that the press is rightly an adversary to the powerful, one that is needed now at least as much as it was in 1971.

Certainly one of the movie quotes of the year is the line uttered by Bob Odenkirk (The Disaster Artist, The Spectacular Now) as Post managing editor Ben Bagdikian as the paper digs in: “I always wanted to be part of a small rebellion.” Vive la petite revolution.

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Mon, Jan 08, 2018 2:55pm

I was re-watching Spotlight recently, and I just find it interesting that the two best films about journalism in the past 40 years both feature Ben Bradlees–Sr. in The Post, and Jr. in Spotlight. I’m looking forward to seeing The Post soon!

Johan Gibbs
Johan Gibbs
Fri, May 11, 2018 7:09am

kay. Steven Spielberg is most famous and celebrated of all American filmmakers. I love his all movies. Very nice article, I would like it to share with