A stirring defence of freedom of the press, The Post arrives at a time when the words 'fake news' echo through almost every political conversation. Director Steven Spielberg rushed the project into production because its story, set in 1971 when President Richard Nixon ruled like a crime boss, speaks so potently to the world today. Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham (Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep) defy the Nixon administration and publish the classified Pentagon Papers, revealing the government’s lies about the war in Vietnam.
It’s Capra-esque, with all the positive and negative qualities that suggests.
The Post is also Spielberg’s most Capra-esque movie ever, with all the positive and negative qualities that suggests. Spielberg, like Frank Capra, is a master of pop entertainment. Here he delivers a fast-paced story laced with moments to cheer for, full of undeniable heroes. But the movie is also earnest and corny, annoying in the way it spoon-feeds the audience its blatant message and tries to stage-manage our emotional responses.
Hanks and Streep bring their movie-star charisma and best character work to the roles. They lift the film above a screenplay that is pedestrian but clear, and which begins by giving us historical context. In 1966, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), who would ultimately leak the papers from the think tank where he works, observes Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) privately rage at the fact that the United States is stalled in Vietnam. Minutes later McNamara assures the press, “In every respect, we’re making progress.” Today it’s assumed that politicians lie and obfuscate. The Post takes us back to a day when that occurrence seemed like news.
Cut to a few years later in 1971 and Bradlee is trying to elevate The Washington Post from its lowly status as a local paper. No one could have known that Woodward and Bernstein would break open the Watergate scandal for the Post just a few years later. Without overplaying, Hanks’ Bradlee struts, growls and is always the smartest, biggest personality in the room. Hanks conveys the glee Bradlee feels at getting a scoop, his integrity (he will not let Nixon hand-pick a reporter to cover his daughter’s White House wedding), and above all the birddog instinct of a true newsman.
Graham, whose finishing school accent suits her helmet hair and ladylike wardrobe, had become the unlikely and uneasy publisher of the family-run paper after her husband’s suicide. With her typical wizardry, Streep captures both Graham’s determination and the deep insecurity she must overcome with every new challenge (chronicled beautifully in her Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, Personal History).
Spielberg wonderfully recreates the dynamic of a newsroom
After the New York Times begins publishing the Papers, the government gets an injunction preventing it from releasing more. Bradlee sees a chance to jump into the story despite the danger: he and Graham might be charged with treason for printing classified information.
Spielberg wonderfully recreates the dynamic of a newsroom: the buzz of energy, the abrupt conversations, the shared sense of pride when something goes right. And he surrounds his stars with a vibrant cast. Among the best: Carrie Coon as editorial writer Meg Greenfield and Bob Odenkirk as assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian, a weary-looking veteran journalist who makes a crucial connection with Ellsberg.
And the film creates tension in low-stakes settings. Sprawled out on Bradlee’s living room floor, a team of reporters pieces together the undated pages of the secret papers Bagdikian has delivered, racing against a deadline, wondering if Graham will defy her own lawyers and give the go-ahead to publish.
But the film wastes its most intriguing opportunities. Bradlee belatedly realises, and confides to Graham, that his prized friendship with President John F Kennedy was not on equal terms after all, that the editor might have been used. But The Post zooms past that thorny, fascinating issue so Hanks can deliver one of the film’s blunt lessons about politicians: “The way they lied. Those days have to be over.”
Streep’s performance saves the film from its own heavy-handedness. The first version of the script was by Liz Hannah, who was inspired by Graham’s trajectory as a woman coming into her own. Spielberg brought on Josh Singer, the screenwriter of Spotlight. However the writers worked together, the seams between the feminist story and the journalism story are conspicuous. Almost all the scenes about progress for women are ham-fisted in construction and feel shoehorned in.
In the midst of the Pentagon Papers crisis, Graham speaks to her grown daughter (Alison Brie), who is putting her own young daughter to bed. In that maternal episode, Graham admits that she never thought she’d even have a job, much less run the company. “I thought that was the way it was supposed to be. Everybody thought that way then.” Still uncertain of herself, she tearfully says she does not want it to be her fault if the paper goes under. Streep is magnificently nuanced; there is no need for John Williams’ mawkish music to intrude and tell us that this is meant to be a touching moment.
And when Graham walks out of the Supreme Court after a hearing about whether the Post can publish the Papers, she descends the steps and rows of women – only women – conveniently step aside as if she has just parted the Red Sea.
The Post lives in the long shadow of All the President’s Men, a far better film that turned Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting into a sophisticated thriller. Spielberg has created a well-crafted message movie, which raises a question haunting all message movies: who, exactly, is the audience, apart from the like-minded viewers it is preaching to?
Graham gets her big empowered moment when she tells a sexist board member, “This is no longer my father’s company, it’s no longer my husband’s company, it is my company.”
But the most Capra-esque episode – think of Jimmy Stewart on the Senate floor in Mr Smith Goes to Washington – goes to Coon. In the crowded newsroom, Greenfield takes a phone call and relays the Supreme Court ruling allowing publication of the Papers. “The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy,” she says. It is a scene effectively calculated to cause viewers to cheer, and perhaps get a little weepy as they realize how precarious that freedom seems today.
Even as The Post warns about the threats to journalism, though, it offers hope. When the president rails against the press, he is seen from a distance, a shadowy figure in the White House. But the voice Spielberg uses is authentically Nixon’s own, from his once-secret tapes. Nixon did everything he could to silence the press. We know how that turned out.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.