I am a sucker for a good love story, but not the sappy boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-and-girl-end-up-together type of love story. I mean the boy-finds-government-secrets, boy-gets-government-secrets-to-the-press, press-saves-democracy type.
Make no mistake, “The Post” is a love story. Steven Spielberg’s latest film is clearly written to remind us all that despite cries of “fake news” and continual sniping from the Oval Office, a free press is one of the cornerstones of democracy.
“The Post” begins in 1966 Vietnam as we see Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), who is with the Rand Corporation, embedded with American soldiers in order to compile a report for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (an excellent Bruce Greenwood) on how the war is going. Newsflash, not well, a fact the government chooses not to share with the public.
Forward five years and we see Ellsberg copying the top secret government report, setting the story in motion. It was, in fact, The New York Times that first published excerpts from what came to be known as the “Pentagon Papers.” At that time The Washington Post was considered a family-owned local paper. When the government files an injunction to prevent The Times from publishing any more stories, The Post’s bulldog editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) pushes The Post’s publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) to publish in defiance of the Nixon White House.
With the newspaper about to go public the question becomes, as Bradlee says, “What are you going to do, Mrs. Graham?”
We need to take a detour here and address the elephant in the room — “All the President’s Men,” widely considered to be the best film about journalism, which revolves around The Post’s coverage of Watergate and contributed to bringing down the Nixon administration. It is fair to make the comparison, and it would be fun to watch the two films back-to-back. Where “All the President’s Men” plays out as a much slower paced procedural, “The Post” is more frenetic, full of obligatory shots of crowded newsrooms with people chasing around and talking over each other, typewriters clacking away in the background.
For those of us who worked in newspapers 20 years ago or more, there is a glorious nostalgia to “The Post,” as if that chaos made the journalism better (actually, good reporting is good reporting, and we are in the middle of a golden age of journalism despite what Tweets you may read). However, computers have cut down the number of people in the room and the noise level has dropped. Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be (although no one I know would really go back to the days of cut and paste, and running from typewriter to typesetter with a hundred steps in-between).
The main crossover between the two films is Bradlee, and Hanks does a good job, but suffers in comparison to Jason Robards‘ Oscar-winning role in “President’s Men.” Is it fair to compare the two? Probably not, and I would be interested to hear from people who have not seen the Robards performance. Having said that, Hanks does a fine job in a typical Hanks way. The actor has carved a mighty impressive career playing a version of the ordinary man fighting for what is right. I read somewhere that he is the Jimmy Stewart for our age and that’s an apt description.
This film seems to have every great working actor in America in supporting roles, including Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, David Cross, Tracy Letts, Allison Brie, and the wonderful Bob Odenkirk, as Ben Bagdikian. It almost becomes a distraction as one face after another pops up. I guess when Spielberg says, “Hey, wanna be in my movie?” any actor worth his salt would jump.
But this is as much Kay Graham’s story as Bradlee’s. Full disclosure, Graham is one of my heroes. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, “Personal History,” is a must read for anyone who is interested in journalism, 20th-century politics, history, women’s issues, or just anyone who likes to read brilliantly-written books about inspiring people.
Graham grew up with the family paper, but when her father died he handed control over to her husband, Phil, because that was how it worked back then. Of course a woman couldn’t run a business. Streep’s Graham, in a moment with her daughter, acknowledges that it didn’t occur to her to break the system. However, when her husband died, Graham took over, although the film suggests her primary role was to host and attend parties, and do the womanly thing. There is even a scene where she is hosting various high-powered couples for a dinner party, but as soon as the topic turns to politics the women, Kay included, know it is time to leave the room and let the men talk about serious things.
“The Post” has a strong feminist message not so hidden in the narrative. At first, Graham is talked over in board meeting as Arthur Parsons (a wonderfully condescending Bradley Whitford) claims to look out for the company’s interest as they are about to launch the IPO. He is not a newspaper man, he’s a businessman. But as the narrative progresses, Graham, urged on by Bradlee, asserts herself. There is a wonderful small scene where Bradlee is a little too cocksure about his bravery at facing up to the government before Paulson, as Bradlee’s wife Tony, reminds him who is really brave. He is only risking losing his job. Graham is risking her company, her fortune — her entire way of life.
Streep does a great job, of course, and she is at her best in those wordless moments when we see her struggle with the decision.
As in the movie “Lincoln,” Spielberg has the ability to take what we know actually happened (will the Emancipation Act pass?) yet still build suspense. We know how this all turned out, yet there is still genuine tension as we wait for the Supreme Court ruling.
There are always a few moments in a Spielberg movie where he can’t resist turning it up a little too far to make sure we get the point. The scene in the court between Graham and the government’s young female intern is a little much, but that’s just being pedantic.
This is a film for history buffs and lovers of journalism. There are several moments that had me beaming because it is beautiful to watch people doing their jobs well. My favorite moment in the film sees Bagdikian at his typewriter. As the presses start to run, the whole building shakes and he gives small smile before getting back to work.
“The Post” clearly has resonance today. We are inundated with information but it still comes down to someone, somewhere, on whatever platform, deciding to do the legwork to uncover a truth, to hold someone accountable. It’s why freedom of the press is in the first amendment — the first. That’s what freedom is.
And that’s what makes “The Post” a love story.
In addition to “Personal History,” read Bradlee’s autobiography, “A Good Life.”