When future filmmakers craft the pop culture version of history about our current political age – and what a sad, sickening history it will be – they’ll no doubt have an almost bottomless pit of stories to tell. Stories about people who worked tirelessly to uncover corruption, collusion, and incompetence at the highest levels of government. Let Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay for The Post be a guide to telling those stories. It stands in the company of movies like All the President’s Men and Spotlight.
This is Hannah’s first attempt at feature screenwriting, and she wrote it solo in early 2016. Singer, who won a best original screenplay Oscar with Tom McCarthy for 2015’s Spotlight, was brought on board to do a rewrite just before filming began. Their movie is about the vital role a free and open press has in a democracy.
In 1971, The New York Times received portions of a top-secret government report, eventually dubbed The Pentagon Papers, which concluded the U.S. could never achieve victory in its war with Vietnamese communists. Three presidential administrations lied to the American people about our chances of winning the war as they sent thousands of soldiers to die for a lost cause. The Post isn’t about the reporters at the Times who broke the story. It’s about the men and women who got to the story second, but who nonetheless played an integral part in the fight to hold those in power accountable.
In particular, this is the story of Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee. Graham was at the helm of what was then a small, family-owned newspaper, The Washington Post. Upon retirement, Graham’s father had passed the ownership of the paper to her husband, and she took over when he committed suicide years later. Ben Bradlee was the man she installed as executive editor at the Post. A dogged newspaperman who delighted in comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable through his work, Bradlee had an insatiable thirst for producing first-rate journalism.
The Post covers events that happened almost 50 years ago, but its themes couldn’t speak more to our current situation. Hollywood often deals with the contemporary cultural or political climate by focusing on echoes from the past. That’s how you get a movie like Thoroughly Modern Millie. Made in 1967, that picture is set in 1922 and focuses on a flapper with the “thoroughly modern” goal of working for a wealthy businessman so she can then marry him. The movie comments on second-wave feminism of the ‘60s through its Roaring Twenties setting.
The Post is a comment on how the Trump administration, and many of its supporters, denigrate the free press as being liars and purveyors of “fake news.” There are echoes aplenty to our current president – who calls the news media “the enemy of the American people” – in the presidency of Richard Nixon. That administration sought to punish reporters and publications that dared to file stories holding them accountable for breaches of the public trust.
The right of the press to publish that kind of information is the central dramatic arc of The Post. Bradlee is frustrated when Times reporter Neil Sheehan scoops the Post on the existence of the classified report. He’s upset because it puts his paper in the position of playing catch up. One of Bradlee’s reporters, Ben Bagdikian, tracks down his own possible source for the report. This eventually forces Graham to decide if she’ll risk her personal financial security, and even her freedom. The government blocks The New York Times from publishing the top-secret documents and threatens criminal charges if they, or any other newspaper, prints more of them. Graham is caught between Bradlee on one side, insisting that defying the government is the duty of the free press, and her board of directors on the other, reminding her that she has a financial responsibility to consider.
Hannah and Singer’s screenplay also layer in other themes that were timely in 1971, and still feel so today. As a woman controlling a newspaper, almost unheard of at the time, Kay Graham must deal with blatant sexism. There is a key scene when Graham describes to her adult daughter what it’s like, and how her own attitudes have changed. She invokes the infamous quote by 18th century author Samuel Johnson, “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” She tells her daughter that when she took over the paper, she would have been just as likely as anyone to laugh and agree with the sentiment, but the times are slowly changing, and she has changed with them.
One of the things that was also beginning to change at the time, but decidedly for the worse, was the idea that news should turn a profit. Early in the film, Graham is preparing to take her company public, which adds heightened economic considerations to her decisions on what she will and won’t allow her paper to publish. The Post addresses with subtle nuance the pernicious ways in which the businessmen try to put profitability ahead of the public good that responsible journalism provides.
Less nuanced is Steven Spielberg’s direction of The Post. Critics have often accused the legendary filmmaker of cheap sentimentality in his films, and that is this movie’s biggest weakness. The seriousness of Hannah and Singer’s screenplay is undercut by Spielberg’s re-creation of the early 1970s. His staging of an anti-war protest midway through the film is too slickly produced to feel authentic. The brief scene is set on the streets of Washington, D.C., but it has the aura of pure Hollywood backlot, and all the dream-factory reimagining of a real time and place that comes with it.
Spielberg also allows John Williams’ mostly forgettable score to swell a little too much during key scenes. Instead of trusting me to feel my emotions naturally, I could feel Spielberg just beyond the frame, manipulating me into his desired emotional response. There is also an ill-conceived post-script to the movie. In our current entertainment landscape, in which comic-book movies dominate, the end of The Post can cynically be described as the introduction to a Government Conspiracy Extended Cinematic Universe.
Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep both decided to deprive a young up-and-comer of an acting Oscar nomination this year, so they signed up for the lead roles of Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham. As sarcastic and mean-spirited as that last sentence was, I will counter it by offering the highest praises for both performers. They are just as good as you would expect.
Streep has a complete command over the smallest of gestures and facial expressions. Numerous times during the movie Graham is flustered when she has to make big decisions about the fate of the paper. Streep telegraphs the inner turmoil of her character like only she can. Hanks delivers a unique, comically gruff interpretation of Bradlee. He expertly adds the merest echo of Jason Robards, who portrayed Bradlee 40 years ago in All the President’s Men, which chronicled a story The Washington Post did break first: the Watergate scandal.
The Post, like President’s Men, was made during a perilous time for both democracy and the free press. Both films show how rigorous reporting from the press saved democracy from itself, and The Post is here to remind us that it’s still possible.
Why it got 4 stars:
- I am very much of two minds about this movie. It addresses issues that are critical to how democracy functions, as well as important issues like gender equality and toxic capitalism. The screenplay handles all of the above very well. At the same time, I was resistant to the way Spielberg told the story, which is unusual for me. Ultimately, I gave The Post a higher rating because I think it's an important movie.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- At one point in the movie, when things seem to be breaking Ben Bradlee's way, he turns to his secretary and conspiratorially intones, "My God, the fun!" It lasts three seconds, but it reveals volumes about the character. On a personal level, I connected with that moment in a big way. To be that excited by what you do every day while also making a living at it is something not many people get to experience, and I got a high from seeing him enjoy it.
- Bob Odenkirk gives a rich, understated turn as Post reporter Ben Bagdikian. Fans of Mr. Show with Bod and David will delight in seeing him and David Cross share the screen in a few scenes.
- It's not the movie's fault, but when I heard The Post was about the Pentagon Papers, I had in my mind that it would focus more on Daniel Ellsberg, a personal hero of mine. After seeing the movie, I was more sad about the fact that the phenomenal Matthew Rhys was woefully underused as Ellsberg in the very brief time he appears on screen.
- Bruce Greenwood plays former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The makeup and costuming (not to mention Greenwood's performance) got the look of McNamara just right. The Post came along at a fortuitous time for me. I had just finished Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's 18-hour documentary, The Vietnam War. Seeing it made me want to fall down a rabbit hole of Vietnam War movies, and The Post fits right in there. I'm also eager to revisit Errol Morris' insightful 2003 documentary The Fog of War, where he basically interviews Robert McNamara for two hours.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- I'm looking forward to seeing Greta Gerwig's directorial debut, Lady Bird. If the early critical buzz is to be believed, I'm in for a good time. Lady Bird stars a favorite actress of mine, Saoirse Ronan. Besides that, though, I know next to nothing about it.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- This was a very well behaved audience. I saw The Post at a press-only screening. There was, as you can probably imagine, applause after the film ended.