Steven Spielberg’s latest outing, The Post, takes our hand and whisks us off to the newsroom of fifty years ago. These newsrooms and the journalists that worked within them uncovered the atrocities of the My Lai Massacre, the corruption of a President in the Watergate scandal, and in The Post, the leak of the Pentagon Papers. In an age of ‘fake news’ and eroding trust in the highest institutions in the Western World, The Post offers a timely insight into the influence of investigative journalism, and deals with the question of power and who holds it American society.
The Post has received a considerable degree of media and critical attention over the past few weeks, on the back of fevered award season commentary. To date, the film has received six Golden Globe nominations, and is up for two Oscar nominations – Best Picture, and Best Actress for Meryl Streep in the role of Washington Post owner, Katherine Graham. I am not sure it will pick up accolades in these categories, as other strong contenders (such as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Frances McDormand’s lead role in that film, as well as The Shape of Water) are also in the running. That said, Streep puts in a masterful performance in The Post, depicting the tribulations of being a leading woman, in a patriarchal world of the 1970s. Katharine Graham oversaw The Washington Post during the socio-political tumultuous years of the 1970s, and was the first female publisher of a major US newspaper, as well as being the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Aside from the unfolding drama of the publishing of The Pentagon Papers, it is Graham’s story, finely portrayed by Streep, that takes up the other half of this dual-narrative thriller.
In terms of historical events, The Post recounts the period in which The Washington Post (and indeed The New York Times) exposed the leaked Pentagon Papers. The documents, lengthy and extensive in their coverage, revealed how the United States Government was aware that it could not win the ongoing war in Vietnam. The film highlights Robert McNamara’s, the US Secretary of State for Defense, lack of confidence in a victory as early as 1966, during an early scene. The Pentagon Papers cache detailed numerous events which were undertaken by the Americans in Vietnam, that were not reported in the mainstream media, such as bombing raids and covert operations. The Post picks up the story at a time when The Washington Post is facing difficult financial and editorial questions about its future. When The New York Times runs a cover story based on the leaks by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), the paper is slapped down by the Nixon Adminstration, and barred from publishing further stories relating to the Vietnam War. Spotting an opportunity to turn The Washington Post‘s fortunes around, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and his newsroom, including journalist Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) track down Ellsberg to continue the undercovering of The Pentagon Papers to the American public.
The film captures a watershed moment in American and World history. This is not solely depicted on screen by to the content of the leaked document, but also by a web of mini plotlines relating to the main characters. Streep’s Graham is confronted in a few scenes by the overwhelming dominance of aging white men in the institutional hierarchy of society – she literally opens a door to a boardroom meeting to be stared at by tens of males in suits on a couple of occasions. The issue of gender in the workplace is dealt with in a considered way, which subtly reminds us of the ongoing stories relating to women – equal pay, harassment, career opportunity, and voice.
Similarly, the fact the events take place in 1971 allow Spielberg and the writers to explore the character’s recent past, which at the time of the leaks seems so distant. Bradlee’s relationship with the Kennedys, Graham’s friendship with McNamara (the author of some of the leaked papers) harks back to a time in the 1950s and 1960s when everything seemed so certain. Politics and social life was more black and white, and a time when there was greater trust in the highest offices of the land. By 1971, those friendships, between government and the media, are questioned, and trust in the nation’s executive has eroded. For the audience, the issue of trust reminds us of more recent times and faith in the Presidency under Donald Trump, and indeed George W. Bush over Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, and Bill Clinton over his private life. Up the release of the Pentagon Papers, the parameters appeared much simpler. The Vietnam War was essential in holding back the tide of communism, and upholding American ideals on the world stage.
The watershed motif carries through to Bradlee’s newsroom. The Post is very much a love-letter to a bygone age of American journalism. It’s an ode to the print media the printing process. Some of the most the most visceral scenes in the film, for me at least, were down at the presses, watching the commentary and copy on the leaked documents physically transfer to the ink on the paper. The frantic nature of the newsroom makes for high-paced drama of the need to inform the American people by publishing The Pentagon Papers all against the backdrop of a debate on the future of the newsroom amidst the economics of newspaper publishing – the share prices, job cuts, and profit margins over journalistic principles.
A lot of these themes owe a debt to Spielberg’s direction craft and Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s storytelling. The scenes, as well as the dialogue are rich and intriguing. The script tells us everything we need to know without over-explaining. The procedural nature of how this moment in history played out could easily have slipped into a documentary-style undertaking, devoid of the personal and emotional. Hannah and Singer’s intelligent writing (accompanied by a John Williams score tinged with trepidation) paces the story aptly and builds the thrill of counting down to the publishing deadline.
Meanwhile, the set design is so carefully created that you wish there were time to pause and mull over the contents of Bradlee’s desk, or Graham’s home. It reminded me of the opening scenes of Bridge of Spies, the previous outing for Spielberg and Hanks, which instantly transported the audience from the present, to a fifties New York City. The level of detail is such that you feel like you could open Bradlee’s desk draw and find notebook pages filled with leads and marked with coffee cup stains. Similarly, Spielberg and the cinematography capture the aforementioned watershed theme through dress and style. When Ben Bradlee clutches a photograph of him and his wife with President John F. Kennedy and Jaqueline Kennedy, the reminiscing reveals a more polished and slick dress sense – a time of lost pride perhaps. Tidy suits and clean haircuts of the 1950s and 1960s, chide with the tired looking shirts and loose ties of 1970s Washington Post newsroom.
One final observation I felt I ought to mention was the thought I had while watching the film regarding some of supplementary cast. The Post also features Sarah Paulson (as Antoinette ‘Tony’ Pinchot Bradlee, Hanks’ onscreen wife), David Cross (as Howard Simons), and Alison Brie (as Lally Graham, Streep’s onscreen daughter). All of these actors viewers will be familiar with in television series such as American Horror Story, Arrested Development, and Community, among others (Bob Odenkirk will be familiar to fans of Breaking Bad, and Better Call Saul too). Each of these characters make the transition to the silver screen perfectly, and each has an integral role in the story, giving the film greater shape and depth. Streep and Hanks are unquestionably the leads in The Post but the wider cast and their involvement round off a wider ensemble of performances.
The Post may remind audiences of the present-day situation we find ourselves in. A Trumpian era of intrigue and anxiety are threads in the fabric of this film. But there is also a message here of resolve. Fears of the Presidency is not a new phenomenon, and as the fate of the Nixon Administration reminds us, there is truth out there, and honest, good journalism is ready to report it, even in the epoch of the ‘alternative fact.’
4 stars out of 5.