None of which is to say that The Post is a bad movie. It’s actually a rather good one, just one that is deeply self-congratulatory in a particularly Hollywood fashion. In part for that reason, I wouldn’t rank it in the top tier of films about journalism—Spotlight, The Insider, All the President’s Men—although it is solidly in the tier immediately below. That is no small feat, considering that most movies about journalism have no clue, and evidently not much interest, in how journalism actually works.
The story begins, onscreen as in real life, with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys). A former Marine, Harvard Ph.D., and Pentagon staffer—described in the film by a former colleague as “a bit of a showboat, but smart”—Ellsberg leaked thousands of pages of a classified history of the Vietnam War to the Times’ Neil Sheehan in 1971. (If I were Sheehan, I’d be pretty steamed that I didn’t even make an appearance in this movie.) The Times published its first excerpts on June 13, 14, and 15. But for the next 15 days, it was enjoined from publishing more of what came to be known as the “Pentagon Papers” by a court order from the Nixon administration.
The Post is mostly concerned with this two-week period, when Bradlee and his crew leapt into action to match the Times’ scoop. They, along with more than a dozen other papers, eventually obtained the documents from Ellsberg. Then they faced the question of whether to publish—risking legal sanction, financial disaster, and possibly even prison—or to wait until the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of Nixon’s court order.
This decision ultimately came to Graham, whose father had passed her over as the publisher of the Post, and given the job to her husband, Philip. After Philip’s suicide in 1963, Graham inherited the job anyway but was widely condescended to as a woman and considered not to be up to the job. As anyone moderately familiar with either journalism or Hollywood storytelling will know, Graham proved them wrong—all the while wearing a series of remarkable caftans. She opted to publish, the Supreme Court sided with the press, and Graham went on to guide the paper through Watergate and serve as publisher until she passed the title to her son in 1979.
The problem with The Post is that its central dilemma—to publish or not to publish?—is really no dilemma at all, especially with the benefit of hindsight. On one side are Bradlee and virtually every other journalist in the newsroom; on the other are the business-side “suits”—the lawyers, the board members—with their tut-tutting concerns about the paper’s IPO and, you know, that little detail about everyone possibly going to prison.
There are a few occasions when the movie toys with complicating its tidy narrative architecture. Notable among them is one of the film’s best scenes, in which Bob McNamara (a superb Bruce Greenwood), Graham’s close friend and the former Defense Secretary who commissioned the Vietnam study in the first place, explodes at her. “Nixon is a son of a bitch!” he shouts. “If there’s a way to destroy your paper, he’ll find it.” Of course he, like the movie’s other token naysayers, is ultimately proven wrong.