Journalism movies have me at hello, especially the period pieces. The staccato clack of typewriter keys, the clangor of printing presses, the smoky newsrooms, the barking declarations of crusty editors with their feet on their desks and their ties askew. From His Girl Friday to Zodiac, Park Row to All the President’s Men, show me a shoe-leather reporter on a hot deadline, and I’m in Pavlovian thrall.
So for an easy sell like me, I can forgive the more glaring examples of lacquered stagecraft in Steven Spielberg’s The Post, a high-minded chronicle of The Washington Post’s receipt of the Pentagon Papers and its internal struggles to report on their findings. These include but are not limited to: the ominous, flickering fluorescence of the Rand Corporation office as whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) spirits away the first batch of government secrets; the typical Spielbergian tactic of depriving us of the object of a character’s gaze for far too many beats, drawing us in like a carnival barker; and the screenplay’s penchant for hallowed, Sorkinesque platitudes about the sanctity of the Fourth Estate to the foundations of a democratic republic; and a tacky denouement about the Watergate break-in, as if teasing a sequel that has, of course, already been expertly dramatized.
All qualify as suspect movie moments, triumphs of showmanship that only stand out because they’re surrounded by savory authenticity. For the most part, Spielberg’s direction is as de-cluttered and workmanlike as it’s been since Lincoln. There is little visual bombast, and even John Williams stays mostly quiet. In the time-honored tradition of the newspaper film, it’s language that dominates the screen, reflecting its time and ours with poignancy, irony and zeal.
The actors that speak it aren’t too shabby, either. As Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, Tom Hanks pulls off the high-wire act of being completely Tom Hanks and completely our mental image of the ’70s newspaper editor: A crusty, grimacing workaholic who bleeds black and white. Hanks brings to Bradlee a gruff voice and a wit as a biting as a shot of tequila, and we quickly forget about Jason Robards’ admirable interpretation in All the President’s Men.
We want Bradlee very much to succeed, and the same goes for his publisher, Kay Graham, embodied by Meryl Streep with the expected familiarity of a second skin. Graham’s title was inherited, not earned, and her journey is one of transformation between cowed puppy in a board full of men to decisive leader forced to make a decision that could sink her company.
Indeed, Spielberg and screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer excel at creating existentially high stakes. Described as “cash poor” and “barely solvent,” the newspaper has just gone public less than a week before the Pentagon Papers — leaked in part to the New York Times first — wind up in the hands of Bradlee’s crack staff. Publishing material about Vietnam that’s damning to the current administration, to say nothing of every Oval Office holder dating back to Truman, could lead to a federal prosecution under the espionage act, prison time for its editors and reporters, and an exodus of investors. There’s also the matter of Kay’s coziness with the party in power, especially her longtime friend Bob McNamara (a toothy, double-talking Bruce Greenwood).
The best scenes showcase the flurry of journalistic, political, emotional and legal agony from the moment the 4,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers are delivered to the first batch of stories’ publication the following morning, an eight-hour grapple of fear and history-making motivation, the characters weighing two alternatively destructive options. It couldn’t be further from the cover-every-base, dot-every-I investigation of Spotlight, the last great newspaper movie.
As for the leaker of those papers, Ellsberg is mostly a peripheral figure. Though his question, upon meeting the Post’s Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) to deliver the material, is among the film’s most important: “Wouldn’t you be willing to go to prison to stop this war?” This jibes with the septuagenarian Ellsberg I interviewed for this publication in 2011, who told me, “I always enjoy being with the people who have decided to get arrested, many for the first time. … Arrests have a very warm light for me. … I think it’s something that citizens should regard as a part of their responsibilities.”
But no player in this saga recedes into the literal background more than President Nixon, viewed only in profile, from a distance, through the White House windows, his own audiotapes substituting for written dialogue. It’s an appropriately diminished role for a lawless tyrant on the wrong side of history. Sometimes, politics is complicated; in others, the bad guys are right in front of us, deserving neither recognition nor respect. It’s a good thing the Washington Post is still fighting them.
THE POST. Director: Steven Spielberg; Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys; Distributor: Fox; Opens: Friday at most area theaters