Freedom of the press is not just a need, a right and a duty; its fun. Thats one of the main messages – and, even more than that, feelings – conveyed by The Post, Steven Spielbergs new movie. Set in 1971, The Post deals with the events that led to the publication of the 7,000-page set of documents dubbed The Pentagon Papers, first in The New York Times and then in The Washington Post and most other American papers. The documents exposed the multiple deceits in which every U.S. president since the end of World War II had taken part – from Harry Truman to Richard Nixon, who was president when the story broke – and the extent of Americas involvement first in Indochina, and then in Vietnam. Among other things, the Papers revealed that not a single American political or military leader believed the United States could win the war in Vietnam, and yet U.S. troops kept being sent into the Vietnamese inferno, just to avoid the humiliation of an American defeat.
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Spielbergs previous period piece, the 2015 Bridge of Spies, was also based on a true story, one that took place a decade before the events of The Post. It was a respectable, serious and even fascinating work, but it suffered from a certain heaviness, which gave it a mainstream, somewhat fossilized feel. The Post, too, is a work of mainstream filmmaking, but of the high-paced variety: Even when Janusz Kaminskis camera halts its chase after the characters to capture their conversations, it seems impatient to take off again. With the help of his two writers, Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (who co-wrote the 2015 Oscar-winning Spotlight, another movie about a journalistic expos), Spielberg has created a wonderfully focused film that does not stop for a minute, which only makes it more pleasurable to watch. We enjoy the movie because Spielberg obviously enjoyed making it.
At a time in history when the media – and not just in America – is under constant attack from government officials who present it as an enemy of the state and its work as a form of treason, The Post is an ode to freedom of the press. Although the movie romanticizes journalism and shows a certain nostalgic longing for the days when print was the ruling form of media, The Post succeeds because it looks at both the past and the present but does not make this double perspective too obvious. It is a subtle comment not only on the present moment, but on the various twists and turns of American history from the Pentagon Papers affair in 1971 through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which relied on no less deceit than Americas involvement in southeast Asia.
The Watergate scandal broke out in 1972, and its exposure, alongside the publication of the Pentagon Papers, turned the Washington Post from a local paper seen by many as a White House organ into one of Americas leading newspapers. The movies witty end hints that the Watergate scandal is about to hit an already unsettled America. Fake news did not only become an aspect of global discourse under Donald Trump; it was already there in the fabrications the U.S. government tried for decades to sell to the American public.
The Post does not focus on Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), who was a senior researcher and analyst at the RAND Corporation, a think tank connected to the U.S. Department of Defense. Ellsberg was the one who exposed the Pentagon Papers – a study commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) – and his story really deserves a movie of its own. Spielbergs film is about the two other main actors in the affair: Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the editor of the Washington Post, and Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the papers owner. In 1971 the Post was still a family business: Grahams father had purchased it in 1933, and when he retired he gave it over to his son-in-law, Philip Graham. The latters suicide left the paper in the hands of his wife, Katharine, a Washington socialite with no experience in either business or journalism.
I wont go into all the details of the Pentagon Papers affair, since following the high-paced unfolding of the events is a big part of enjoying The Post, whether you remember the case or are just discovering the story for the first time. What makes the movie powerful is the encounter it stages between two characters, one of them static, the other undergoing a process of change. Bradlee is the static one: His journalistic resolve and commitment to freedom of the press are absolute, and he sticks by them from beginning to end. Opposite him is Katharine Graham, a woman in a world of men, who did not choose her position but ended up in it following a personal tragedy (the movie does not say much about her stormy marriage to Philip, who suffered from bipolar disorder) and out of a sense of family responsibility.
Early on in the story Katharine is embarrassed and confused, especially since the story breaks just as her financially struggling newspaper is about to go public on the stock market – a move Graham does not completely understand, but which her advisors warn her might fail if the paper enrages the administration. Another problem is her longtime friendship with McNamara, who will consider her publication of the documents a personal betrayal. The bonds that form between journalists and politicians is one of the still-pressing issues the movie raises. Bradlee tries to convince Graham, who at first refuses to accept it, that such a bond cannot be free of interests on both sides. The example he gives is of his own close friendship with President John. F. Kennedy, which proved beneficial to them both.
The Post follows Graham as she shapes her own role in a male-dominated world and comes to a new understanding of her journalistic values, especially when the moment comes for her to decide whether to allow the Pentagon Papers to appear in The Washington Post – after The New York Times has already been forbidden to do so – even though she and Bradlee could end up in prison for national security violations. The movie ably captures the relationship between Bradlee, whose resolve is clear and strong, and Graham, who must figure out what she thinks under a great deal of pressure and allow her voice to be heard and even change the course of history (early in the movie, we see her unable even to address her all-male board of trustees, and she asks a man to speak in her place). Spielberg benefits greatly here from the long-proven talents of his two stars – Tom Hanks, excellent as ever, and Meryl Streep, who has played quite a few real-life figures and does so this time with her usual skill, her mannerisms complementing Hanks restrained style.
In The Post Spielberg turns the Pentagon Papers affair into a historical fable that delivers a highly relevant message about attacks on the media, the lies of those in power, and the place of women in the public and professional world. While other Spielberg movies not featuring aliens, dinosaurs or fearless archaeologists have been somewhat ambivalent in their ideology (such as Schindlers List and Saving Private Ryan), there is no ambivalence in The Post: This is a direct, forthright movie that turns the exposure of the governments crimes and the defense of the press into an adventure. The adventurous tone is what makes the result fun to watch, but it also makes us realize that if this were only an adventure story, we would not need to be quite so worried.