It happens to any good newspaper reporter. You’re chasing down a big story and inadvertently stumble across another story that may be even bigger.
That’s what happens in Steven Spielberg’s terrifically entertaining “The Post.” Last February, Spielberg accelerated production of Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. A movie about the Washington Post’s 1971 battle with the Nixon White House over the release of the Pentagon Papers seemed like a well-timed finger in the eye to an administration whose war with the press has given us “fake news” and “alternative facts.”
But Spielberg couldn’t have known that “The Post” would connect even more deeply with another national conversation, that of the #MeToo movement, of women speaking out against sexism and harassment. Seeing those two threads intertwine in such a gripping and energetic movie, with a large cast so good that it’s almost unfair, really, is a blast. Even though the themes are weighty and the parallels are provocative, my takeaway resembled what Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) growls at one point in the newsroom: “My God, the fun.”
“The Post” begins by following Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a military analyst turned antiwar activist who smuggled thousands of pages of top secret documents, dubbed the “Pentagon Papers.” The papers showed that the American government had been lying about its involvement in Vietnam going back even before President Kennedy. In 1965, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara knew the war couldn’t be won. But years later the government was still sending soldiers to Vietnam, not to win, but to forestall a humiliating defeat.
Spielberg cuts between Ellsberg and the Washington Post, where new publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) is about to take the company public. Graham was the daughter of one former Post publisher and the widow of another. As the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, she isn’t taken seriously by the men in the boardroom, and she knows it. “Kate throws a great party,” sneers Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) not quite out of earshot. Like a lot of women of that era who faced persistent sexism, Graham has internalized other men’s doubts about her abilities, and is tongue-tied around them even when she’s the boss.
Meanwhile, Ellsberg’s papers make it to the New York Times, which starts publishing exclusive excerpts to Bradlee’s great chagrin. But then the Justice Department gets an injunction against the Times to stop further publication, the first time in American history that the government has prevented the press from publishing a story. When another reporter, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) tracks down Ellsberg and gets ahold of the papers himself, Bradlee sees his chance for the Post to play catch up. He pursues the story with the purest, strongest force known to journalism — that of the scooped trying to scoop their scooper.
These threads converge in the second half of “The Post,” which takes place over a pressure cooker day in Bradlee’s home, as the Post reporters scramble to put their story together while the paper’s lawyers and executives urge not to publish. Graham, the boss, is caught in the middle. Spielberg keeps the momentum going with taut editing (the film runs under two hours, which counts as a short film for Spielberg) and intricate single-take scenes, the camera darting between newsroom desks and in and out of rooms.
Even though anyone who knows the history knows what happens, the suspense is palpable. It comes down to Graham, who must weigh the decision to publish against the real possibility that it will ruin her family’s company and send her people to prison. Praising a Streep performance feels like evaluating the wetness of water. But this really is one of her best performances in a while, with a real arc to it as we see Graham’s spine stiffen and eyes clear as she finds the strength to assert herself.
She and Hanks have great chemistry, with Hanks acknowledging Jason Robards’ iconic performance as Bradlee in “All the President’s Men” while making the role his irascible own. The ensemble around them is almost too good, including Carrie Coon, Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Pat Healy, Michael Stuhlbarg, and even Odenkirk’s “Mr. Show” partner David Cross.
“The Post” joins the ranks of great newspaper movies like “The Paper,” “Spotlight” and, of course, “All the President’s Men.” It’s quick to jump on the soapbox about press freedom and government accountability — but just as quick to jump off it to keep the drama moving. The film is a love letter to old newspapers, the camera lingering on the typesetters toiling on Linotype machines, and conveyor belts sending newspapers high into the sky as if they were delivering today’s edition directly to the heavens.
But “The Post” isn’t a valediction to a vanishing era, but a call to arms for the new one. And a reminder that everyone needs to be welcomed, and listened to, in the fight.