Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods
MPAA Rating: (for language and brief war violence)
Running Time: 1:55
Release Date: 12/22/17 (limited); 1/5/18 (wider); 1/12/18 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | January 4, 2018
It's depressing that The Post seems so timely. The film was fairly rushed into and through production, which would be an irrelevant thing to point out, except that the film's production timeline shows how urgent the filmmakers believed it to be. It's the story of an out-of-control Presidential administration targeting the free press in order to hide some damaging information and out of a personal vendetta. Yes, it does seem quite urgent, if only as a warning for how quickly and ruthlessly such authoritarian personalities can put their personal grudges into governmental action.
Much of the conversation about the film will be invested in its timeliness, and it's a vital conversation to have at this moment, when we seem to be heading in the same direction in regards to the current government's hostile attitude toward the press. There are scenarios and lines here that send a shiver down one's spine. If we didn't know how quickly director Steven Spielberg made the film, we'd think all of these moments are simply coincidences. Since we do know, we also know those moments are intentional.
The good news is that the film is more than a story from the past turned into a parable about the present and a possible future. It's a political film in the safest sense of the word—not about a specific person or political party. This is politics in the big picture, as in the clashing of two powerful entities in society and the various maneuvers those entities use to gain the upper hand.
On one side, there's the administration of Richard Nixon, whose own voice provides the stakes of the drama as he phones various officials looking for a way to silence reports about a classified document that could change the country's perspective on the war in the Vietnam. On the other side, there are the publisher, editor, and reporters at a Washington Post that's looking to expand its reach. The Pentagon Papers, as the classified report came to be unofficially called, could be the thing that gets the paper the boost it needs.
It's more than that, of course. There's also the fact that the hiding of the Vietnam report showed how little the government thinks of its own constituents. There's the responsibility of a free press to serve the people, not those in power. Liz Hannah and Josh Singer's screenplay frames the legal battle over the publication of the Pentagon Papers as the prologue to our modern understanding of journalism and the skepticism with which ordinary people view their government. It's also a prelude to another scandal that the Post would cover extensively and that would, in an appropriate way, offer the final rebuttal to Nixon's war on the press.
The film does a lot, and it does so without being too preachy, too adoring of the practice of journalism, or too simplistic in its worldview. To be fair, the film is all of these things, but it's all of these things at a level that seems appropriate to its story.
The main players at the paper are its publisher Kay Graham (a very strong Meryl Streep, as a character finding her place in a world that doesn't seem to have one for her), who took over the job after her husband's suicide (The ownership of the paper belonged to Kay's family, but her father passed on responsibilities to her husband), and its executive editor Ben Bradlee (an iffy Tom Hanks), a shark in the newspaper world who's equally revered and feared. The Pentagon Papers are being exposed by the New York Times, detailing the plans for and failure of intervention in Vietnam over the course of decades. The Nixon administration obtains a court order for the Times to halt publication of certain documents.
Shortly after, a chunk of the documents lands on a Post reporter's desk. Assistant editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) thinks he knows the man who has been leaking the papers.
The possibility of obtaining the leaks leads to a series of conflicts. Kat worries that the exposure and potential court action might prevent the Post from being put into the public market. Bradlee has to sneak around his boss to an extent, since he's not entirely certain if she would publish the leaks. The conflict between the press and the government is muddied by the history Kat and Bradlee have with certain officials. Kat is friends with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the former Secretary of Defense for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson who doesn't come out looking too good in the papers, and Bradlee was on a first-name basis with Kennedy. The latter realizes that the old ways of reporting on politics, in which journalists and politicians shared a symbiotic relationship, cannot hold under such circumstances.
It's complicated, to say the least. While the film touches upon its various political and cultural issues (In addition to the give-and-take relationships between reporters and politicians, there's a lot about the overt and subtle sexism that Kat receives as the first and, at the time, only woman serving a newspaper publisher), the film plays mostly and best as a race-against-the-clock thriller of sorts, in which the obstacles are as imposing as the might of the U.S. government and as low-key as deadlines or being beaten to a story by a rival paper.
Spielberg, Hannah, and Singer have put together a streamlined account of history, invested in the daily workings of a newspaper and anchored by a genuine sense of idealism. There's no denying that The Post benefits quite a bit from our current political climate and predicaments, but beyond that, this is also a solid piece of storytelling.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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