It begins with a symphony of noise. 1966. Vietnam. To indicate a musical sound associated with the war, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River plays as soldiers lock and load. In truth, the song was never released until ‘69, yet the sound fits. After the explosions that run through the jungle, the noise of three powerful machines follow, one after another – the rotating blades of a helicopter, the repeated fire of a machine gun, then the keys of a manual typewriter.
Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) is in the field, surrounded by chaos, writing a top-secret Pentagon study reflecting government decision-making during the Vietnam War. The picture it paints is not positive. It would take several years, but in ‘71, Ellsberg smuggled those papers out from their locked drawers then released them to the New York Times. Once the story of how the American government had always known that the country could never win the war, and knew it six years earlier, all hell broke lose.
Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a drama revolving around the publication of those leaked Pentagon Papers, the cover-up spanning the leadership of four U.S. Presidents, the fight against the Nixon government, and the attempts by the government to shut the story.
Like the ‘76 newspaper drama All The President’s Men, a lot of what happens in The Post occurs within the busy, productive offices of The Washington Post. As it should, the set looks the same to the point where you could actually be watching a prequel, though with a different generation of popular actors. In Alan J. Pakula’s film, wealthy newspaper owner Katherine Graham was never seen, only mentioned. In The Post, she’s a key player.
After that Vietnam War introduction and setup, The Post cuts to ‘71. Graham (Meryl Streep), now facing an economic crunch with the paper, has a working breakfast with her crusty editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). You can tell they’re newspaper people. When Graham veers the conversation away from the point of the meeting, only to have Bradlee steer it back, Graham states with a smile of admittance, “I buried the lead.”
By printing the leaked documents, there’s a lot at stake for The Washington Post. The New York Times already has a governmental cease and desist against it, but the Post’s editor, Bradlee wants to publish, regardless. The White House had lied about the war for years. It knew back in ‘65 that Vietnam could not be won, yet the president continued to send the sons of American families overseas. Bradlee believes the public has a right to know. But the repercussions could be severe, including jail time for both Bradlee and Graham. As one-time Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara warns, if Graham publishes those leaked documents, Nixon will come after her. “If there’s a way to destroy your paper,” he tells her, “Then, by God, he’ll find it.”
What comes across so well is the film’s sense of period. It’s not only the clothes, the hair, the cars, or the interiors of sets that look like like the homes and offices of an early seventies east coast establishment, it’s as if cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shot those scenes at the actual time. Rerun The Exorcist, or even All The President’s Men, then watch The Post. It hardly feels like a recreation at all; it’s very much of the decade. The film’s design is impeccable.
Though not as thrilling as All The President’s Men, and not constructed to be, the drama behind the events of The Post and the newspaper’s determination to put the truth on record is every bit as engrossing. Unlike the Watergate story, there’s no sense of mystery or discovery about those leaked documents, only what it means to have such incendiary information at your finger tips and what might happen to the messenger when those who need to know, the public, are informed. As one official states when asked why the government continued the war when it was known it could never be won, and why so many young men were sent to their deaths, the response is sobering. It’s the kind of feedback a patriot never wants to hear but is required if he or she is ever to get a true perspective of where they’re from. “Ten percent to help Vietnam,” he replies, “Twenty percent to stop communism. Seventy percent to stop the humiliation.”
There’s also a sense of present-day relevancy that may not have been intentional when production began, but it certainly reared its head once filming was in progress. At a time when the current administration is doing everything to discredit the validity of a press that does not automatically support its governments actions or policies, The Post ultimately stands for what a free democracy needs. During a climactic moment when a Supreme Court decision is handed down in favor of both The New York Times and The Washington Post, Justice Black’s quoted recorded opinion remains of paramount importance. “The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role. In our democracy, the press is to serve the governed, not the governors.”
It’s not difficult to predict Oscar nods, particularly for Streep, who skillfully captures publisher Graham’s vulnerability as well as her determination. It’s not a steely determination. Inheriting the paper’s responsibilities from her departed husband while having little experience, Graham knew of the board’s lack of confidence in her decision-making abilities, but she weathered the distrust. On the phone, when Graham is faced with the task of either halting the story or telling the paper to print, the call is perhaps the most important call of her professional life. Members of the board, investors, lawyers, and editor Bradlee are all listening in. When she gives her answer and replaces the receiver, you can see she remains racked with doubt, still uncertain of what may befall both her paper and herself. In the world of American newspaper stories, The Washington Post’s decision to go is legendary. Director Spielberg captures that moment magnificently.
The film’s only questionable error is the casting of Tom Hanks. Hanks is undoubtedly a great cinematic presence, and his popularity is earned; he’s a terrific actor. But as the gruff and sometimes curmudgeonly Bradlee, there’s a sense we’re watching an experienced actor act rather than be, particularly when cast against Streep who vanishes into Graham. You never see Bradlee, it’s always Hanks. This may be a thin and unimportant line for some, particularly as Hanks can be so good, but he’s up against something that was perhaps never considered. Jason Robards captured that Bradlee essence so well in All The President’s Men – he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar – that anyone who follows has a huge and unintentionally annoying hurdle to overcome. It’s not portraying the real Ben Bradlee that concerns, it’s having to follow a performance so perfectly realized as Robard’s. Yet, The Post is such a riveting, well-crafted film, that even the miscast of a major player can’t get in the way.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 115 Minutes Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10)