In 1971, the New York Times published a series of articles based on 'The Pentagon Papers'- leaked classified reports which demonstrated that successive US administrations (from Truman to Johnson) had in effect lied to the American public about the efficacy of the Vietnam War. When Richard Nixon used his position as President to bar the New York Times from publishing anything further, the Washington Post picked up the baton.
This forms the basis of The Post, a biographical drama written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, and directed by Stephen Spielberg.
Meryl Streep is superb as Washington Post publisher Katharine 'Kay' Graham. Taking on responsibility for the newspaper after the death of her husband, she is still trying to find her feet when the maelstrom over the Pentagon Papers hits. It's odd seeing Streep in a role where she's mousy or submissive; certainly, she starts that way. Graham is talked over, patronised to, and almost dismissed by some of the men who work for her. So it's a pleasure when she finds her voice and is unequivocal in her support to publish. She also has a powerful scene with Bruce Greenwood (who plays Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara) where Graham confronts McNamara about the lies he's told and the lives that have been lost as a consequence of them. Unsurprisingly, Streep got an unparalleled twenty-first acting Oscar nomination for her performance, and it's well deserved.
Tom Hanks is good as editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee. Trying to enhance the reputation of the Post (from a 'small family paper'), he seizes on the Papers- and the court injunction against The New York Times, who initially published the first tranche of articles covering the revelations in the Papers- to get ahead of the game. He is the strongest advocate for freedom of the press- essentially 'publish and be damned'- but also realises what's at stake if the White House takes the paper to court. A fine performance.
Other performances of note are Sarah Paulson as Bradlee's wife Tony, who is underused but used to good effect when she is on screen; she gets a strong scene where she tries to explain how Kay would be feeling after being dismissed for so long; there's good work by Bob Odenkirk and Carrie Coon as two members of the editorial team who help to break the Post's coverage of the Papers, and a nice turn by Michael Stuhlbarg who plays New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal. Bruce Greenwood is great as McNamara, and Matthew Rhys lends an air of defeated disillusionment to Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Papers.
Like Spotlight and All The President's Men before it, The Post is also a paean to investigative journalism before the days of the Internet. Tracking down leads, going through reams and reams of paper to find their story; there's a great scene at Bradlee's house when the team are literally wading through hundreds of pages of the Papers (none of which are in order) to find what they'll lead with. There's also a real joy in seeing the front page being painstakingly typeset and a wonderful sequence where you see the entire newspaper being printed.
Spielberg is a master storyteller and he elicits great performances from his cast. Because this is a biopic- and the result is a matter of public record- the whole story is less 'will they publish?' as 'how did it happen?'. There's a wonderful score by John Williams to add to the mood and the cinematography of Janusz Kaminski- from the boardrooms of Washington to the jungles of Vietnam, a swanky party to a busy newsroom- is superb.
Not only is it a well made film, The Post is an important reminder of the need for freedom of the press to challenge and to hold to account those in positions of power.
Rating: 4 out of 5