It may seem odd, but there was a time in America where a president thought himself above the law and it took a team of dedicated journalists to unwrap the layers of deceit emitting from the Oval Office. Yeah, this isn’t the stuff of fiction. The Pentagon Papers, as they were commonly known, consisted of a study of America’s evolving policy during the Vietnam War, with decades of foreign policy under a number of administrations all failing to bring the conflict to a close. Each administration, though it was commonly believed to be unwinnable, continued to escalate the war effort in Vietnam in the hopes that they would not be to blame for America’s defeat in Southeast Asia. How this sensitive report came into the hands of these dedicated journalists and how they took the battle over publishing these documents to the Supreme Court is the subject of the latest film from master director Steven Spielberg, The Post, which continues the director’s examination of the American spirit and the ideals that we’re supposed to stand for, as he’s done recently with Bridge of Spies and Lincoln.
Before the case of the Pentagon Papers would be heard before the Supreme Court, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) was working for the RAND Corporation providing analysis on the front lines in the days of the Johnson administration. Despite the report indicating that war cannot be won, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) publicly declares that the fight will continue and America will emerge victorious. This sparks a crisis of conscience in Ellsberg, who steals McNamara’s top secret report on American involvement in Vietnam, making photocopies of thousands of pages detailing the nature of the unwinnable war.
In 1971, the documents found their way into The New York Times. At The Washington Post, legendary newspaper editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is struggling to keep the paper relevant which is made all the more difficult by a vindictive White House. The paper is also struggling financially with owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) preparing to sell shares of the paper in order to keep the paper solvent. However, the public offering is incredibly tenuous because of an opt-out clause inserted by the bank meaning the deal could fall through if anything catastrophic occurs within a week of its offering. The journalistic world is tipped on its head when the explosive documents are published in The New York Times. Bradlee and his team of reporters are scrambling to get their hands on a copy of the documents, and veteran reporter and former RAND employee Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) is able to trackdown Daniel Ellsberg. As the Post scrambles to examine the documents and publish them, a court injunction has been levied against the Times, placing a freeze on the future publication of any of these top secret documents. Now the lawyers get involved and attempt to pressure Kay Graham into not publishing anything from the stolen report fearing repercussions and the death of the public offering.
It’s a testament to the filmmaking skills of Steven Spielberg that The Post can be thrilling and engaging throughout its two-hour running time despite the fact that those aware of history and Nixon administration know how this story ends. The screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer injects a bit of levity to the proceedings that find people hurriedly passing documents back and forth and debating whether or not to publish. It has been argued that Spielberg’s films is a bit too on the nose, which does have a kernel of truth to it, but in these times of fake news and deception coming out of the Oval Office, these kind of things need to be said with blunt efficiency; that’s what The Post does so incredibly well. When it comes down to big moments of decision, moments we, again, know the outcome of, Spielberg is able to draw it out while maintaining suspense before delivering a simple line that inspires cheers in the audience.
Since he’s one of the greatest directors to ever step behind the camera, Steven Spielberg has really assembled quite an impressive cast to populate the newsrooms of The Post. Aside from the Oscar-winning headliners of Streep and Hanks, what’s amazing about The Post is the Mr. Show reunion that Spielberg has brought to his historical drama with Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian and David Cross as Howard Simons, and the two do get their moments to shine and bring a few laughs out of the material. Also rounding out the astounding cast is Sarah Paulson, Tracey Letts, Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, Zach Woods, Pat Healy, and Michael Stuhlbarg (who seems to have been in practically everything this year). Scene after scene features familiar faces delivering solid work that is constantly escalating in tension while bluntly examining the necessity of a free press, especially in times of war or unscrupulous administrations.
Leaving The Post, I found it interesting that I was encountered with something that could’ve been pulled from the film, or maybe a future project for Steven Spielberg concerning The Washington Post in the 21st century. The current president, who has been the subject of a number of unflattering stories in the pages of The Washington Post, was using Twitter to personally attack Post reporter Dave Weigel. It made me think of the brilliant way that Spielberg handles Nixon in The Post, using the backside of an actor while the old tapes of the notably paranoid Nixon has the president lambasting The Washington Post and its reporters. The disgraced president explains that wants to ban the paper from the White House. As we know, The Washington Post was the paper that brought down Nixon’s administration, and I suspect that the famed paper might have something to do with bringing down the current administration and screaming “Fake news!” won’t be enough to stop the dedicated works of journalists out to discover the truth. Sure, The Post is blunt in its messaging and of course contains that Spielberg sentimentality, but it’s a vital work that deserves to be seen far and wide in these times of political volatility and a financially struggling press.
Another thoughtful, thrilling examination of American ideals from Steven Spielberg, The Post uses the Nixon White House and the publishing as the Pentagon Papers to draw nuanced parallels to the modern political climate while retaining an element of suspense and cutting the tension with some much needed humor.