“We can’t have an administration dictating to us our coverage just because they don’t like what we print about them in our newspaper,” growls Tom Hanks’ grizzled newspaper guy Ben Bradlee in this 70s-set thriller about the leaked Pentagon Papers. It’s a statement you can picture modern-day newspaper editors the world over muttering, arriving as this film does in an era when Donald Trump’s White House brands every unfavourable story as ‘fake news’. You get the sense that Steven Spielberg knows it, too. In fact, so keenly aware is he of The Post’s pertinence and prescience, his story often trips over its own self-importance, undermining an otherwise compelling, finely crafted film.
For those unfamiliar, the Pentagon Papers were a 7,000 page report on the United States’ involvement in Vietnam between 1945 and 1967. The key finding within the damning documents claimed the US government knew they couldn’t win the war, yet continued to send troops into battle rather than admit an embarrassing defeat. Needless to say, officials were not keen for the report to be made public. So when the papers got their hands on them, the Nixon government issued a ban on publication, kicking-off a legal challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
The Post focuses mostly on The Washington Post’s role in the eventual publication of the papers. Namely, the internal wrangling between Bradlee and his publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) over whether to risk bankruptcy and possible prison by running the story or to suppress the findings and allow the government to get away with one of the greatest scandals in American political history.
Hanks is magnetic as Bradlee, perfectly encapsulating the legendary editor’s swagger as he prowls through the newsroom, energised by the burr of breaking news and the clacking of typewriter keys. It’s an infatuation with old school journalism that’s clearly shared by Spielberg, who drools over the age-old practicalities of newspaper journalism, turning the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of operating a printing press into a beautifully soothing display of operatic craftsmanship. The director also brings plenty of visual panache to proceedings, using inventive angles and motifs to enliven otherwise drab scenes of journalists and businessmen debating in boardrooms, bedrooms and huddled over payphones.
It’s Streep’s Graham who is the emotional fulcrum of the story, though. The United States’ first female newspaper publisher, Graham is initially lost in a male-dominated environment: walking unnoticed into boardrooms, spoken over in meetings, undermined by her colleagues when they think she’s out of earshot. Streep affectingly and compellingly portrays Graham’s struggle for respect, turning fumbling hand gestures into a steely grasp as she gradually finds her voice and takes charge of the decision over wether to publish the papers.
If only Spielberg could resist the urge to over-egg the resonance of the film’s themes and ideals. All too often, potentially powerful moments are bludgeoned by cheap cinematic tricks that serve to detract rather than enhance the drama. One scene, which sees Graham striding out of court to meet a crowd of empowered, independent women, strives for poignancy but comes across as a hackneyed attempt to curry favour with Oscar voters.
Nevertheless, The Post is a timely reminder of the value of a free press – one that “serves the governed, not the governors” and warns those in charge that an abuse of power will not go unchecked. And that’s an important, moving and powerful message with which everyone can resonate. No tricks required.
Runtime: 116 mins (approx.)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Stars: Tom Hank, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys