The Post, 2017.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Starring Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jesse Plemons, Alison Brie and Matthew Rhys.
In the early 70s, the Washington Post discovers an extensive cover-up spanning four US Presidents. The decision to publish what became known as The Pentagon Papers puts it, especially its publisher and editor, on a collision course with the government.
We’ve seen Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee before, but played by a gruff Jason Robards in All The President’s Men (1976). There’s no mention in Steven Spielberg’s The Post of either Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein – at least by name – but by the end of the film we’re in no doubt that one of the many hats worn by the film is that of prequel. To Watergate. And it’s all laced with the delicious irony of President Richard Nixon ordering that no journalist or photographer from the paper is ever to set foot in The White House again.
Tom Hanks plays Bradlee this time round, channelling his inner Jimmy Stewart everyman as a family man with a young daughter whose business acumen when it comes to selling lemonade nearly puts her dad in the shade. The other powerful woman in his life is Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the paper’s publisher and the first woman to hold such a role. Not that it’s something she deliberately aimed for: she inherited the male-dominated business on the sudden death of her husband and now, with the paper going public to raise money, she’s its figurehead. It doesn’t come naturally.
On the surface, she’s dithering, easily flustered but, when it comes to taking a decision that means the paper locking horns with the government, she has balls of steel. The decision to print the Pentagon Papers story is hers, a story showing that successive presidents, even the then-sanctified John F Kennedy (this is the 70s), had lied to the American people about the Vietnam War. They are top secret so keeping sources confidential is a thornier issue than ever. Graham’s story, and the role of women at the time, is the film’s second hat. She’s patronised and under-estimated by all the men that work for her and by the newspaper industry as a whole. But she’s the boss, she knows it and, by the end of the film, everybody else knows it as well.
At one point, Bradlee raises a playful middle finger at a colleague. The Post’s third and most important hat is to raise a far more serious digit in the direction of the current occupant of The White House. The film flies the flag for the freedom of the press or, in today’s parlance, the media, placing great emphasis on the eventual legal decision that allowed the paper to publish the story. The one which makes it clear the press exists to serve the people, not the government. It’s been well publicised that The White House has requested a copy of the movie for its own screening room, although it’s unclear whether the President will watch it. After all, his views on Streep are well known.
The story itself is probably more meaningful for American audiences than British ones, but anybody with a liking for films about newspapers and investigative journalism – and they never seem to go out of fashion – will love it, as well as its wistfulness for the days when newspapers were king. The actual narrative isn’t as straightforward as some of its predecessors, but it builds solidly towards a triumphant climax, with star turns from Streep and Hanks leading the way. The supporting cast, though, is in a league of its own, boasting the likes of Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, an aged Bradley Whitford and the omni-present chameleon that is Michael Stuhlbarg. Few other films have commanded such a high calibre ensemble.
The ending is historical fact. It’s down to Spielberg’s skill that this never a problem, nor does it spoil the build-up. The result is a timely, valuable story, well told (with a small wedge of Spielberg cheese on the side) and with classy performances. Its message is crystal clear. Whether its target will want to listen, let alone acknowledge it, is the one thing that we don’t know.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Freda Cooper. Follow me on Twitter.