Review by C.J. Bunce
When the worst of us does its best to silence the rest of us, you get a story like 1971’s Pentagon Papers bombshell. When a voluminous, decades-in-the-making, confidential government report that demonstrated unconstitutional behavior by a succession of presidents from Truman through Johnson is leaked to the press, The New York Times first reported on it, and the Nixon administration sought and was granted an injunction preventing the Times from publishing further articles on the subject. Director Steven Spielberg focuses his new expertly crafted biopic The Post on The Washington Post as it decided whether to publish excerpts of the Pentagon Papers in the face of the Times injunction, primarily through the eyes of newspaper owner Katherine Graham, played by Meryl Streep, and managing editor Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks. For the average moviegoer, Spielberg takes a rather mundane footnote in American history and makes it completely engaging and entertaining. Carefully re-creating the early 1970s more than 45 years later with everything from the annoying mishandling of coins as you tried to make a payphone call, to the rotary phones we all used, to the weekly ritual of the family newspaper strewn across the living room, to costume designer Ann Roth’s hand-sewn vintage wardrobe re-creations, eyeglasses, jewelry, and hairdos of the era, to old technology and random items on shelves (that might prompt you to think it’s time to get a new iced tea pitcher), to the thankfully bygone days of women sitting in one room at a party and the men in another, to board rooms completely devoid of women (although today there is still rarely more than one or two), Spielberg makes the best use of the film medium, sharing a timely and important story for a new generation of moviegoers.
Filmed in the same 1970s noir style as Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (and using a newsroom set that is almost as accurate as that film’s 1975 California movie set version of the real thing), The Post might as well be a prequel. It’s almost as good, lacking some of the more heart-pounding, real-life thrills of Watergate, like the mysterious informant Deep Throat, the uncertainty of whether someone in the government was going to think The Washington Post’s press coverage was worth killing over, and the perceived nature of the stakes (the executive branch vs. the Fourth Estate). To his credit Spielberg had the more difficult task of re-creating an era and a newsroom in 2017, when Redford was filming his movie only three years after the events took place (and Spielberg is also certain to illustrate the stakes to both the players and the nation of this earlier event). From the opening scene Spielberg traverses familiar territory, opening with an embedded government wonk in a warzone in Vietnam, as believable as his earliest team-up with Hanks, in Saving Private Ryan. Seamlessly composer John Williams rejoins his long partnership with Spielberg in this scene, offering one of his best scores in years, alternating within the film an intensity that rivals his Raider of the Lost Ark compositions with the contemplative import of the moment realized in his Schindler’s List soundtrack.
Yesterday is today, as scene after scene attests to the same corporate deal making, the same roadshow investors, the same IPO efforts, the same boardroom antics, the same misogyny, the same shuffling of blame, and the same indifference to the public good permeates the nation and the news. Convincingly selling us on the gravity of the story is the best ensemble cast put together in the past year. Streep plays a surprisingly layered Katherine Graham, a socialite who would become the first woman Fortune 500 CEO and first woman to helm a major newspaper, best known for her role in the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Streep never ceases to amaze as she creates yet another character as believable and authentic as any of her past award-winning performances. The Tom Hanks that won best actor Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump is also back, playing the strident editor Bradlee for all it’s worth, complete with the editor’s accent, brusque language and bravado, equal to Jason Robards’ Oscar-winning take on the same man in All the President’s Men. The rest of the cast is a virtual Who’s Who of the current top genre actor scene.
Take for instance Jesse Plemons as an eager and competent young Post lawyer. Plemons had a breakout year, with roles in American Made and the most talked about episode of the fourth season of Netflix’s series Black Mirror, “USS Callister.” Community actor and star of the groundbreaking 2017 Netflix series GLOW, Alison Brie plays Graham’s supportive daughter. Star Trek and Kingsman’s Bruce Greenwood makes it enormously difficult to dislike the show’s villain, former secretary of defense Robert McNamara. You’ll want to throttle The West Wing and Get Out’s Bradley Whitford, who plays an influential Post board member. Genre favorite Michael Stuhlbarg (Men in Black III, Doctor Strange, The Shape of Water) has a few scenes as a New York Times executive. Fargo and Gone Girl’s Carrie Coon stands out as an intense editorial writer. And even Spielberg’s daughter Sasha gets one of the best scenes, as the tense deliverer of “the bomb” to the newsroom. But the comedian-turned-actors really take the spotlight in their scenes and find a great 1970s footing, with Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul, Fargo) as the Post’s national editor and David Cross (Arrested Development, Community) as the Post’s managing editor–a great pick for the role that would later be played by Martin Balsam in All the President’s Men. The entire ensemble is entertaining.
If the film is lacking, it’s in the treatment of the source and true hero of the Pentagon Papers leak, Daniel Ellsberg, played by Matthew Rhys (The Americans), as almost a fleeting tangent in co-writer Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s script. Rhys makes the most of each scene, but more of this key character would have served the narrative better. And Spielberg slightly oversells his point a few times when he attempts to put the relevance of the film in a modern context–that every cringeworthy element of the past, every flagrant disregard for justice, every silenced contingent, and all these social issues can be national crises all over again.
Does Spielberg get Katherine Graham right? Streep’s mannerisms, her body movement, a simple stare, are so subtle and brilliant. Was Graham this emotional? Is the story really about Graham shucking off her lack of confidence before she ascended to become a powerful CEO by film’s end? In Spielberg’s vision, both Bradlee and Graham’s confidante on the board (played by Tracy Letts) tell us the answer with their own faces after Graham delivers her final directive.
A recent The Washington Post article provided its own view of a few interesting tidbits that were left out of the film, here.
In The Post Spielberg reflects on the bad direction of the government in 1971 and where the present has–and hasn’t–made any headway. It’s relevant, it’s important, it’s riveting, and it’s immensely entertaining. Steven Spielberg’s The Post is now in theaters nationwide.