People in all kinds of professions get movies made about them. Athletes get movies. Politicians get movies. Lawyers get movies. War heroes get movies. Cops and robbers get movies. Artists — painters, musicians, authors, dancers, filmmakers — they all get movies. But it’s still uncommon for journalists, unless they’re named Clark Kent or Peter Parker, to be the star of the show. “Spotlight” made waves, winning the Best Picture Oscar in 2016 (rightfully so), but off the top of my head, the last movie about journalists that comes to mind is “All the President’s Men” nearly 40 years prior.
“The Post” isn’t quite on the scale of either of those movies, but it comes damn close. As you might have heard, the cast for this movie is absolutely stacked. You’ve seen Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in the trailers, but there’s also a murderer’s row of some of television’s finest actors, including Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”), Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”), Alison Brie (“GLOW”) and Carrie Coon (“The Leftovers”). And there’s Steven Spielberg in the director’s chair. One would forgive a critic for thinking this movie was out to win all the awards.
The story behind the story should be common knowledge at this point, whether you learned about it in a classroom (as I did) or lived through it (as my parents did). Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, disgusted by the government’s lack of transparency regarding the Vietnam War, leaks classified documents to reporters at The New York Times. The Times starts to follow the paper trail, only to get slapped with an injunction by the Nixon administration. Meanwhile, Kay Graham’s (Streep) ownership of The Washington Post has been turbulent, even with executive editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) running a tight ship; Graham inherited the paper following the suicide of her husband, whom her father had appointed publisher, but dire financial straits have led Graham to consider taking the Post public. The injunction against The Times gives The Post an opportunity to publish the Pentagon Papers, as they are called, and tell the truth about the war. Doing so might establish The Post as a beacon of journalism alongside The Times; it could also bring the full weight of the government down on Graham’s family business, smothering it.
Given that The Washington Post just published a four-star review of “The Post” last month, it’s safe to say we know how the story ends, but that doesn’t make it any less of a treat to watch Streep and Hanks do what Streep and Hanks do so well. (It’s kind of surprising that “The Post” marks the first time the two have acted together.) Taking on the role that won Jason Robards a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in “All the President’s Men,” Hanks turns in a fine performance as Bradlee, imbuing the editor’s bullish disposition with a sense of world-weariness. Speaking of Best Supporting Actor, Bob Odenkirk should at least get a nomination for his role as Ben Bagdikian, the dogged Post journalist who tracked down the elusive Ellsberg.
But who are we kidding: This is Streep’s movie. It’s a lie to say that Streep steals whatever scene she’s in, because for about the first hour, she’s having scenes stolen from her. Graham is still shaken by her husband’s suicide, but it’s the men around her who talk over her, question her decisions and really hold her back. (On two occasions, Graham enters a meeting room to find roughly two dozen men discussing the future of her newspaper.) But by the end of the film, Graham has become confident in her ability to lead the Post, and Streep’s performance becomes noticeably more self-assured, even commanding. Her scenes with Hanks — her quiet resolve scraping against his simmering ego — are taut and electrifying. Rather than just giving us a fully-formed strong female character, Streep shows us how that character develops and grows, which makes watching Graham assert herself all the more rewarding. She might have the Best Actress Oscar on lock if it weren’t for Saoirse Ronan’s revelatory performance in “Lady Bird.”
Speaking of which, an undeniable feminist streak runs through “The Post.” As much as this is a movie about the importance of a free press in speaking truth to power, it’s also about a woman taking what’s hers in a world whose terms are set by men. If the scenes with Graham in the meeting rooms say something about the time, some later scenes carry a message of empowerment to come. After being pushed around by her advisors for most of the movie, Graham puts them in their place: “This is no longer my father’s company. This is no longer my husband’s company. It’s my company.” Bradlee’s wife dresses him down as he preens himself, reminding him that it’s his boss who deserves the credit for deciding to publish the Pentagon Papers. Graham speaks with a starstruck female paralegal upon entering the Supreme Court, and is looked upon by a crowd of women as she leaves. In the wake of #MeToo, these moments resonate, and they feel earned.
“The Post” isn’t a perfect movie. It’s a two-hour movie that consists mostly of watching people dramatically speechifying about the future: the future of The Post, the future of the country, the future of journalism as they know it. Naturally, the film can drag under the weight of all this exposition. It’s a movie that tells more than it shows, and when it does show — like when Bradlee and a team of his finest reporters comb through the Pentagon Papers in his house — it can feel a bit too showy, as if it’s overcompensating for its earlier pacing issues. This showiness sometimes crosses over into artificiality. Bradlee’s daughter really was selling lemonade during that aforementioned scene, and if you didn’t know that, you’d be forgiven for thinking that scene felt a little contrived. It’s a classic Spielberg depiction of a precocious youth. (Meanwhile, an earlier scene where an intern is sent to spy on The Times is pure fabrication.) Not to mention, the film’s focus on The Post overshadows the crucial role that The Times played in this story from the beginning. The Times published the Pentagon Papers first, The Times was sued by the government, and The Times won a Pulitzer Prize for the trouble — not The Post. It’s not as grievous a historical distortion as, say, Ben Affleck downplaying the Canadian government’s role in “Argo,” but it’s still a sour reminder that in Hollywood, the truth isn’t always exciting enough.
Despite its flaws, “The Post” is a fine and enjoyable piece of filmmaking, as much of the moment it depicts as it is of our own. Graham’s story of taking charge was symbolic during the second wave of feminism, and it’s still symbolic now as the #MeToo movement continues to empower women. But there’s also the unavoidable parallel between Nixon and our current president. Nixon is practically a stand-in in the movie, an uncredited actor mouthing into a phone over a snippet of Nixon’s White House Tapes, revealing the man’s clandestine war on the press; it’s a chilling effect (no pun intended). 47 years later, the man who now stands where Nixon once stood has taken that war public, throwing 280-character bombs from the Oval Office and railing against journalists as purveyors of “fake news.” “The Post” isn’t subtle, but neither are the times.
Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.