Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson
In an age of “fake news” and political upheaval, The Post could not be more fitting for our times. In an effort to get this film from (black listed) script to screen as soon as possible (shooting began in May 2017 and was in cinemas by the end of the year, an extraordinary feat), Spielberg once more shows just why he’s one of the top directors in the world. The Post recounts the story of the publication of a top secret government report, later known as the Pentagon Papers, in 1971 that exposed the futility of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War between 1945 and 1967. The report was commissioned by president John F. Kennedy and then further held in secrecy by the creator of the report, Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency and into Richard Nixon’s, who was president at the time the papers were published. The film takes a magnified look into the fear a government, one that pronounces its country “free”, can instil in its people and how far it’s willing to go to avoid scandal and humiliation, and into the morals and ethics that give others hope against such leadership. Not to mention a venture into the strength of a female voice. So how, in light of similar recent films such as 2015’s The Big Short and Spotlight, does The Post hold up in the league of historical exposé-themed movies?
Opening with a scene set in the midst of 1966 combat in Vietnam, the film initially follows military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) as he gets a sense of how the war is playing out for the United States. On a flight back west, Ellsberg is questioned by McNamara (Greenwood) on his opinion. Ellsberg states that the war is unchanged, i.e. the States are neither winning nor losing, which, to McNamara, means they are losing. Despite his agreement with Ellsberg, on returning to the States McNamara declares to the waiting press that he has confidence that the war is going in their favour. This is where Ellsberg begins to understand how the government is playing the American people, and starts in motion a plot to release top secret information to the public.
Anyone unacquainted with the history of the Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers in general may find the first fifteen minutes a bit muddled – a lot of historical fact is thrown our way, the sort of facts that are usually covered in a pre-film crash course that appears written onscreen before the action begins. It makes sense for Spielberg, along with writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, to begin this way, though it does make it tough for the unaware to be drawn straight in.
The good news however is that it does smoothen out quickly as we are introduced to Katherine ‘Kay’ Graham (Streep), the owner and publisher of The Washington Post since her husband died. In fact any scene that features Streep as the ever-strengthening Graham is smooth; Graham’s development from a back-seated, boss-in-title-only who’s happy to let the men run the show to a brave and bold leader, accepting the part she must play in her position of power, is portrayed clearly and powerfully (this is what happens when women are involved in screenwriting: we get an honest and real depiction of women and their struggles). Streep’s modest portrayal of Graham is refreshing: unobtrusive, but with a strong presence, a presence Graham doesn’t realise she has, at first.
Then along comes the Post’s editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, played effortlessly, if also a little blandly at times, by Hanks. A man who, like Graham, knows his own mind and is committed to the Post’s enduring pledge to bring the truth to the people, Bradlee does come across as a character with honest opinions and strong ethics. But ultimately he is still a man trying to control what Graham does or doesn’t allow to go to print in her paper, along with other male members of her board. Despite being described as a “lovely woman”, Graham is still treated as though she does not have a clue what she’s doing. Perhaps this is initially true, as after the death of her husband she chose to take the newspaper on herself rather than have it leave the family (her father bequeathed the paper to her husband). She has put her trust in the board members and Bradlee to run the Post, but when it comes down to the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, she gets the final say (whilst having different men offering different opinions to her). The outcome is no spoiler, and the way Graham made her decision to publish is a simple but wonderfully done scene, with Streep’s portrayal and Spielberg’s direction of such a pivotal moment mirroring Streep’s overall performance. In the film’s final act we see more and more women making their voices heard, a small movement started unintentionally by Graham.
Something that could have been explored further was Graham’s position as a mother and perhaps how that could have affected her decision to publish the papers. There’s a lovely scene with her daughter and granddaughters, and then there’s a scene where Graham confronts McNamara, a family friend, about the papers and she mentions her son. She reveals he had been to war in Vietnam and he was lucky enough to survive and make it home. Spielberg touched on the tip of an iceberg there: the feelings of mothers whose sons were sent to fight in a war that only continued because of the arrogance and cowardice of the American government. That moment missed a trick in seeing Graham perhaps start to veer towards publishing the papers, as the mother of a son sent into this war, regardless of whether he survived or not. This could have been a trigger in leading her to believe she could have the backing of the public, and feeling it to be her duty to reveal the truth. It would be hard to imagine any mother letting such a thing go.
The final verdict as to the publication of the papers is that it was a triumph, a victory that is easily felt thanks to a sublime marrying of performance and score. Happy endings don’t come much happier than the truth coming out and the people winning against their false leaders. In reality though there are consequences, as is touched on throughout (what will the impact be on the government? On the people? On the supposed trust between the governers and the governed?). It is as true a representation of a cowardly bully intimidating those who wish to do good as any similarly themed children’s movie.
As the film draws to a close, we are left with a final short scene that depicts the break-in at the Watergate hotel that began the scandal that would end Nixon’s misleading administration and embarrassing presidency. Bearing a striking resemblance shot-for-shot to the opening scene of All the President’s Men, The Post could be considered a prequel to Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 picture that delves into the 1972 Watergate scandal. That, or maybe there’s room for another version (perhaps also helmed by Spielberg?). Either way, The Post is certainly a well-written and thought-provoking account of one of the biggest deceptions in American political history. Wonderfully performed (with Streep just edging out Hanks as the better portrayal) and with an unusually discreet score from the normally-fanfare-loving John Williams, it can slip seamlessly into the echelons of exposé-based movies.