When first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah began working on a script in 2016 about how The Washington Post stood up to the White House and published the Pentagon Papers, she was writing a movie that might have seemed merely nostalgic about crusading journalism and the power of the press. By the time director Steven Spielberg was shooting The Post in 2017, the project had acquired an utterly contemporary urgency. Cheerleading for the First Amendment is a pointed statement in Donald Trump's America.
Returning to a political period piece rather similar to his 2015 Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies, Spielberg offers a tight, lucid and highly satisfying account of the Pentagon Papers from the point of view of the Post and its publisher, Kay Graham. The Post was scooped by The New York Times when that paper obtained the lengthy government report that showed successive U.S. administrations had known Vietnam was an unwinnable war. But after a court order halted the Times's publication, the Post got hold of its own copy and made the risky decision to publish, too.
Today, some Times veterans are reportedly furious at the notion that anyone would make a movie about the Pentagon Papers called The Post: Publication was a Times scoop; that paper took the initial risk and the Post's subsequent decision to publish the material was quickly joined by several other dailies. But what Hannah handed Spielberg that makes this story different – and makes the movie's complicated story compelling – is the figure of Graham, the widowed socialite plonked into the publisher's chair by her husband's suicide.
Meryl Streep conjures her as a figure of almost comic uncertainty as she dithers in meetings and fiddles with her glasses, but she is sympathetic rather than foolish, silenced but not defeated by the many men around her. Besides Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee, there is a strong supporting cast that includes Tracy Letts as the Post's sympathetic chairman, Bradley Whitford as a condescending board member and Bob Odenkirk as reporter Ben Bagdikian, who obtains the crucial documents.
Streep enjoys some particularly sharp moments as Graham's sheltered perspectives and naive faith in American leaders crumble in the face of the Pentagon Papers' revelations and she, in turn, finds her power. The scene where she enjoys her publish-and-be-damned moment is particularly delightful as the actress prolongs her indecision as long as she possibly can before suddenly giving way. Even Streep, however, can't finesse the occasional passage of outright exposition about Graham's marital history or her attachment to her father's paper; there are several such clunky episodes in the script, including an unlikely speech from Bradlee's wife (Sarah Paulson) extolling Graham's courage.
Hanks's firm work on Bradlee's certainty and impatience does provide a great foil for her; he's tougher, surer but never cruel, pushing hard but held in check by the truth that she's the boss. Still, anyone familiar with Jason Robards's Oscar-winning performance as a much cruder version of Bradlee in All the President's Men – or any critic raised among the gruff old poseurs of daily journalism who routinely bullied young staffers – must see Hanks's performance as a compromise, a softening of the character to win audience sympathies.
And, of course, after successfully telling a complex story, Spielberg inevitably overdramatizes its triumphant ending. Really, does Hanks need to be backlit as he stands beside the printing press with the musical score creeping up on him? (For those who are nostalgic, there are some lovely close-ups of lead type and rolling presses in The Post.) Spielberg then rescues the film with a clever flash-forward to the Watergate scandal and a tip of the hat to The Post's closest political kin. Love All the President's Men? Here's the prequel.
The Post opens Jan. 5 in Toronto before expanding to other Canadian cities Jan. 12.