“We have to be the check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?”
These words are spoken by the legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in Steven Spielberg’s movie about the Pentagon Papers, The Post. (For those of you thinking, Wait, didn’t The New York Times break that story? Patience: We’ll get there.) Lest there be any doubt that Bradlee is speaking on behalf not only of his paper or journalism generally but also of Honor, Decency, and the American Way, he is played by Tom Hanks, who has over time become Hollywood’s designated embodiment of All That Is Good. (Remember Sully? This is him but with a Boston Brahmin accent in place of the mustache.)
Indeed, The Post is so on the nose for the political moment that at times it almost seems it might have been produced not by Spielberg, but by some high-end marketing firm. It’s not only a Trump-era defense of the essential role played by the free press. (Although only seen briefly in silhouette through the window of the Oval Office, Dick Nixon casts a long shadow over the whole film.) It is also the story of a personally insecure and professionally underestimated woman, the longtime Post publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), who discovers that she is as strong—in most cases, stronger—as any of the men around her. (Thus: The Post. The Times’ sole meaningful character in the movie is its editor, Abe Rosenthal.)
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.
Streep and Hanks are both solid in the lead roles, though neither wanders outside her or his respective comfort zone. (Side note: I worked at the Post from late 1998 to early 2000, and the few times I met Ben Bradlee he was in his late 70s. But he still possessed a rakish charisma quite unlike Hanks’s eternal good-guy persona. It may be technically inaccurate to say Bradlee was more of a “movie star” than Hanks is, but it’s not wholly wrong.)
Arguably more interesting are some of the smaller roles. The Mr. Show veterans Bob Odenkirk and David Cross are cleverly cast against type as Post newsroom vets, along with Carrie Coon and Pat Healy. Alison Brie plays Graham’s daughter, Lally, and Sarah Paulson, Bradlee’s (second) wife, Tony. The suddenly ubiquitous Tracy Letts plays Graham’s principal advisor, Fritz Beebe, and the cast is nicely rounded out by Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons, Zach Woods, and Michael Stuhlbarg.
In the end, The Post is a finely crafted but highly conventional Hollywood offering of the kind we see most awards seasons. (It was just good enough to sneak into my top 10 in a highly competitive year.) Spielberg is in complete control of the material and even manages to tamp down his customary treacle until the movie’s almost over. It’s a fine, enjoyable ride, even if the ultimate destination is never the slightest bit in doubt.