As a progressive, a journalist, or just a believer in the power of the free press, The Post is easy to love, a chronicle of a watershed moment in the history of the United States crafted by Steven Spielberg, one of its all-time greatest filmmakers. Its timeliness is undeniable, given the adversarial relationship currently happening between the office of the President and the news media, and our collective knowledge of the outcome of these events gives its story a particularly triumphant ring. But rather than merely recount the publishing of the Pentagon Papers by The New York Times and The Washington Post, The Post shifts its focus to slight north of center, to the newspaper’s publisher, Katharine Graham, whose moment of empowerment in supporting her reporters – and discovering her own voice in a male-dominated community – makes for one of the most satisfying, and equally relevant, journeys of the year.
Meryl Streep plays Graham, an heiress and socialite whose ownership of The Washington Post regularly clashes with a circle of friends populated by D.C. insiders and high-ranking government officials, such as Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). As such – and being considerably less experienced than men like Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the firebrand executive editor of The Post – she checks in regularly about the paper, but largely as a formality, or even a courtesy. But after The New York Times lands in hot water with the Nixon administration for publishing several pages of the Pentagon Papers, a comprehensive report of U.S. military operations, and motivations, in the Vietnam War, Graham finds herself in the crosshairs with her friends, and the government, as Bradlee urges her to publish more of these documents.
As Bradlee’s team of reporters diligently sorts through thousands of pages of information for the most important – and incendiary – details, Graham faces opposition from the paper’s investors, who fear its impending battle with Nixon’s team will wreck a deal to secure The Post’s financial future. Graham is soon forced to decide whether her comfortable life of luxury is worth bowing to what Bradlee claims is no less than assault on a free press, or she’s committed to the legacy, responsibility, and authority of the position she has inherited as owner of one of the most important and reputable newspapers in the country.
It’s funny how a “small” Spielberg film can feature an all-star cast led by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, much less leap into production on May 30 and be ready for audiences to see it by the beginning of November. But the filmmaker’s peerless technique both leans into the sober, unvarnished style of its obvious predecessor or at least point of inspiration, All The President’s Men, and also subtly adjusts its focus to emphasize the humanity of a conflicted woman caught up in circumstances that threaten to disrupt, or even demolish, the lifestyle to which she’s grown accustomed. In her first encounter in the film with Bradlee, Graham approaches the editor as if she’s his employee, not the other way around, and it’s inspiring to watch her discover the power that comes with her role, and learn how to wield it in opposition to all of the controlling masculine forces that seek to exert their influence on her decisions.
Graham was the daughter of a newspaper owner who handed The Post over to her husband, a choice that she claimed in her autobiography pleased her, and she admitted she settled uneasily into the role of owner after he willed it on to her. Whether or not this particular series of events was her watershed moment of self-actualization, the film’s examination of an older woman in a position of power in the 1970s seems at once like a deeply necessary history lesson, an extraordinarily timely snapshot of “nevertheless, she persisted” gender politics, and a powerfully intimate metaphor for dealing with an oppressive, seemingly overwhelming force – say, a scrappy newspaper facing down the Federal government – that believes it is above the law, and conflates its authority with indisputable correctness. That Streep gives this evolution dimensionality isn’t surprising, but she makes Graham’s journey feel complex, emotional and exciting, transitioning from trying to appease the opposing parties she’s caught between to taking a bold stand that clarifies and ultimately means something substantial in her life.
Hanks is suitably cantankerous as Bradlee, but Spielberg generally bottlenecks his ensemble in an extremely skillful way to keep the focus on the story, even when the screen is populated by the likes of Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross and Pat Healy. But the filmmaker has such a consummate understanding of storytelling and technique that he knows when to drill down into a moment for greater emotional truths and when to condense what must have been excruciating volumes of information – both in terms of the Papers themselves, and the journalistic processes of vetting, creating and production of a daily newspaper – to communicate the essential details that keep the film on track. As invigorating as it is to watch an incredibly intelligent and resourceful group of reporters assemble one of the most important news stories in American history, it’s as powerful – and necessary – to pause for Sarah Paulson’s Tony Bradlee to explain to her husband why the stakes are so much greater for Graham, and then watch that discovery wash over Ben as he encourages her to take a stand as much for herself as for his own belief in the importance of the story.
Coming down just short of openly fetishizing a publishing process that basically no longer exists, Spielberg turns a loving eye to a moment in history for the media as both a technological and philosophical institution. But despite its dry-boned style, it also exudes the same sentimentality as so much of the filmmaker’s other work, albeit perhaps in this case as a consequence of telling a story not only whose outcome we know, but feels unlikely to challenge audiences’ own values or opinions about the events in question. (Is there anyone who doesn’t feel like Vietnam was a disastrous conflict, or that Nixon’s behavior was criminal?) In which case, The Post feels slightly familiar if effective as a retelling of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, but ultimately, it’s incredibly vital as a character study of Katharine Graham, who discovers the power of a platform that levels the playing field between the weak and the strong, and at the same time adds a powerful woman’s voice to a world where they are under constant threat of being drowned out by men.