In select theaters this Christmas • Starring Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep • Director Steven Spielberg • TLM Rating 3/4
“This movie is a well-oiled machine.”
With “The Post,” Steven Spielberg is able to make history feel new again by viewing it through the unique perspectives of two substantive characters. The history in question is the controversial release of the highly classified Pentagon Papers by the New York Times, which eventually resulted in one of the Supreme Court’s most famous decisions. The perspectives in question belong to two leading figures at one of the Times’ fiercest rivals—the Washington Post. Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is a gravel-voiced newshound and his publisher is Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), took over the Washington Post for her late husband and must now captain it through its most tumultuous period.
The Pentagon Papers were classified documents that recounted the entire history of the Vietnam War, from its humble beginnings with Truman all the way to its conflation with Johnson. As the Papers were “top secret,” not meant for the public until many years after the war had passed, they were blunt in their view that the war was unwinnable—a far cry from what the American people were being told. After the Times came under fire for publishing the documents, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), the leaker, brought the rest of them to the Washington Post. For Bradlee, it’s a no-brainer: we’re journalists, so we publish, no matter the repercussions. For Graham, it’s a more difficult decision. Not only is she in the middle of selling the Post to investors, but she’s personal friends with Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense for both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, whose portrayal in the Papers is less than flattering.
This movie is a well-oiled machine. It’s constantly moving forward with the speed and precision of a printing press. What keeps it from becoming a superficial, fast-paced history lesson is the spotlight not on the events themselves, which are too considerable to grasp with a two-hour drama, but the minutia of said events. That’s where the flavor is.
I’m talking, for instance, of a scene where the editorial staff is holed up in Bradlee’s living room, sifting madly through thousands of secret government documents, checking them for national security risks before publishing—and all while Bradlee’s daughter makes a killing on selling them lemonade. Much of this is built into the script, and much of it is Spielberg’s proven ability to find the magic in the little moments, as well as the big. For every Brontosaurus gracefully roaming the countryside, there’s a shaking cup of water, or, in the case of “The Post,” a shaking desk, showing us the printing presses on the floor below are in full force.
It wouldn’t be a Steven Spielberg production without underdogs, represented here by Hanks and Streep, each of whom bring their own brand of assured stateliness. Their characters are, in many ways, the most American of underdogs: individuals against government. Through them, we’re reminded that history isn’t ordained and carried out by lackeys, but shaped and patterned by average, uncertain people doing what they think is best in the moment.
In some of the movie’s best scenes, where Hanks and Streep are alone on screen, several ethical questions arise regarding journalism, but the film never slows down long enough to dive too deep into any one of these holes. Their presence, however cursory, provides some welcome food for thought in a movie heavy on dramatics, like snacks for a long car ride.
“The Post” isn’t a great movie, but it’s never boring. One might venture to say it unfurls faster and with more gusto than a Sunday newspaper in the hands of a retiree. Along with his last film, “Bridge of Spies,” this is Spielberg’s most blatantly Capra-esque movie. The underdogs, the patriotism, the unfettered sentimentality, the moral lines in the sand—it’s all there for you to either eat up or scoff at. You know who you are.
Hunter Lanier is a Houston-based film reviewer who appears on the Critics Circle podcast from the Houston Film Critics Society.
All images courtesy Niko Tavernise © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Storyteller Distribution Co.