In the age of “fake news”, where the lack of institutional accountability is directly related to the erosion of journalistic independence and the desire for objective truth – there are few movies as crucial, or as timely, as The Post.
Back in 1971, The New York Times ran a series of eye-opening investigative articles based upon information found within a leaked study called The Pentagon Papers. In short, the classified document proved that the United States government had been lying to the public about the progress and motives behind the Vietnam War for a number of years.
Using the full weight of The White House, President Richard Nixon employed the Attorney General’s office to force The New York Times to halt it’s coverage via court injunction. As reporting on the American government’s machinations in Vietnam halted, it was left to The Washington Post to follow the trail of odious breadcrumbs.
The publication’s dogged, shoe-leather effort to get a hold of The Pentagon Papers in itself is thrilling, but that’s not where the drama lies. What happens when they do get the documents? At its core, The Post is about whether a newspaper should run a story – and it’s a dilemma with far-reaching political stakes, and significant personal ones too.
Executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is relentless in his pursuit of the truth, holding the ideals of the free press as paramount. As for publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) on the other hand, things are not so clear-cut. In principle, she stands with her newsroom and understands why this story desperately needs to reach the public.
But in practicality, such a move has dire consequences. Her beloved employees could lose their jobs, the company her family built could be left in ruin, and the careers of her close friends in government could be destroyed. Oh, and there’s also the not-so small matter that Graham herself could be facing jail-time for printing state secrets.
Considering the historical context, it’s no spoiler to reveal that Graham made the courageous decision to let her reporters unveil the truth. And as fate would have it, the Supreme Court saw it her way too. Graham’s bold move elevated The Washington Post from a small local newspaper into a globally regarded publication – earning them the credibility to pursue the Watergate scandal just weeks later.
(In fact, the The Post even ends right where the 1976 classic All The President’s Men begins, so it’s fun to imagine this as a prequel in The Washington Post cinematic universe.)
Working with an unfussy script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, legendary director Steven Spielberg turns in his best film in over a decade (since 2005’s Munich if we’re to be honest) – dealing deftly with issues of journalistic integrity, governmental hubris and gender politics. Even as most of the action revolves around photocopying, typing, research and phone conversations – the film feels propulsive, tense and perpetually riveting.
Anchored by assured leading performances from two acting icons in Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, those aforementioned static scenes crackle with emotion and nuanced character work. The film is also bolstered by a supporting cast of prestige television all-stars, namely Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul), Carrie Coon (The Leftovers), Alison Brie (GLOW), Matthew Rhys (The Americans), Sarah Paulson (The People v. O. J. Simpson), Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), Michael Stuhlbarg (Fargo), and Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights).
While there may have been better executed films about brave journalists exposing appalling untruths in the past, such as Spotlight and All The President’s Men, the timing of The Post’s polemical tale lends it added relevance and resonance in the minds of modern audiences. But regardless of your political leaning or interest, The Post invigorates, because even if you strip it of its commentary, it’s simply a well-told story.