Though a little unfocused, Spielberg’s latest delivers a message worth hearing
The Post mainly takes place in 1971 and deals with the events surrounding the Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers. Publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) is preparing to take the company public, and she’s struggling with the perception of her as the owner of the paper. The Pentagon Papers are leaked, and the New York Times gets the scoop. Executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and his newsroom try to catch up with them, when an injunction keeps the New York paper from publishing anything more about leaked study. When the Post gets a copy of the Pentagon Papers, they are presented with a difficult choice: risk the government’s wrath by publishing, or ensure the survival of the newspaper by holding off.
It is a little odd that a film about the publication of the Pentagon Papers would focus so much on the Washington Post, when the bulk of the activity surrounding that particular chapter of American history happened at another paper. But it turns out that The Post isn’t really a movie about the leak. It isn’t really about the kind of heroic journalism as seen in movies like All the President’s Men or Spotlight. It is instead a story of personal frailties giving way to a greater cause. The film lays it on pretty thick, but in the end the movie delivers a message worth hearing.
The dramatic core of the film lies in the relationships between people in power and the people that are meant to keep them in check. The film posits that what ultimately unites the socialite publisher Kay Graham and the gruff editor Ben Bradlee is that they have both to some degree compromised their integrity through their friendships with people in government. This puts the Washington Post in an interesting light: it still seen as a local paper back then, and the sheer proximity of its journalists to the seats of power implies a certain level of familiarity not afforded to any other publication. In building the story on a foundation of weakness and compromise, the film projects a compelling arc.
Not all of it is successful. The movie at times still falls into the trap of inflating the Washington Post’s role in this incident. The film is better when it downplays the uplifting rhetoric and instead focuses on the personal struggles of these characters. The movie as a whole plays things broadly, but it’s all easier to swallow when the film really drills down on the frailties of these characters: Graham, who at this point still feels unsure of herself, and Bradlee, who at first seems to be as dismissive of Graham as everyone else.
The acting is good, but that’s the only possible result given who was cast in this film. If anything, it feels like the movie loses something by playing things a little safe. But yes, Meryl Streep continues to exhibit a level of talent that is pretty unimpeachable, and Tom Hanks puts up a fine performance that only pales in comparison to Jason Robards’ earlier portrayal of Bradlee. The supporting cast offers up an even greater embarrassment of riches, with the likes of Bob Odenkirk, Jesse Plemmons, Tracy Letts, and Michael Stuhlbarg lighting up the scenes that they’re in. Matthew Rhys shines the hardest playing Dan Ellsberg, his studied intensity giving weight to the film’s central event.
The Post does feel a little unfocused at times. The Pentagon Papers hold the story together, but the connections it holds are tenuous at best. There are other things that the film seems to want to say, other issues it wants to tackle in bits and pieces of narrative. And they don’t always resolve in a satisfying way. It is probably worth noting that this film seems to have been rushed into production, and some of its pieces don’t quite feel as polished as they could be. But it was rushed for a reason: it’s a film that speaks directly of our times, in a world where government seems to be taking an increasingly adversarial posture against the press. It’s a story that’s worth telling right now, even if the telling of it isn’t quite as perfect as it could be.
Philbert Ortiz Dy has been reviewing movies professionally since 2007, and has thus dedicated his life to being yelled at by fans of literally everyone. He is currently the Online Editor of Rogue.ph. Yell at him on Twitter at @philbertdy.