In response to the leak of the Pentagon Papers, the federal government teeters on the precipice of abolishing freedom of the press. It takes a noble team of journalists and their initially meek female boss, whose family legacy is on the line, to step up and stop them. The Post chronicles how their stand helped protect the First Amendment, established the Washington Post as a political-reporting powerhouse, and provoked the Nixon administration to take desperate measures. While the film chronicles the past, it’s also clearly speaking to the present, hoping to not so subtly remind audiences of the importance of the ongoing fight to report the truth in the age of “alternative facts.”
Meryl Streep stars as Washington Post publisher Kay Graham, who was only given the reins to her father’s paper after her husband’s suicide. Tom Hanks plays the Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee, who leads a ragtag editorial team at the paper. Through a quirky series of events, the Post’s group of reporters get their hands on the Pentagon Papers—which reveal that the U.S. government knew for years that the Vietnam War was unwinnable—and continue to publish them even after the New York Times is silenced by an injunction. While the Times first broke the story, the Post pulls a Spartacus to stand beside them, despite the potential legal and financial consequences for Graham and her employees. The Post ultimately serves as a prequel of sorts to All the President’s Men, as the final scene depicts the break-in at the Watergate Hotel.
This well-structured film offers context for its story by mentioning touchstones of U.S. history, as well as using monologues from the movie’s female characters to illustrate a culture in which Graham had every reason to doubt herself or stay silent. While this comes off as a bit ham-fisted, it makes her ascension to self-assuredness and her team’s moral victory feel all the more triumphant.
It’s a tall order to make typing, reading, printing, and sorting documents seem like high-stakes action, and director Steven Spielberg does a delightful job of using light, sound design, score, and motion to build tension. The Post also strikes a charmingly well-balanced tone. The script by co-writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (the latter of whom also co-wrote the Oscar-winning original screenplay for the newspaper movie Spotlight) sets up beautiful, well-timed bursts of comedy to break up the heaviness and moralizing of the story.
The Post is an ensemble drama more than anything else, which unfortunately might shortchange stars Streep and Hanks come awards time. But make no mistake: Their performances anchor the movie. Both convey so much with just a twinkle in their eyes, and Streep is able to communicate her character’s internal journey from harmless housewife to champion of the truth with just her facial gestures. The cast is stacked with recognizable faces, though only a few truly get their moment in the sun—in particular, TV stars Bob Odenkirk as scrappy reporter Ben Bagdikian and Matthew Rhys as Daniel Ellsberg, the jaded Defense Department contractor behind the leaks.
While the film has a talented cast and energetic execution, its biggest asset might be its timeliness. Firstly, Graham is portrayed as a woman whose potential was boxed in by the times she lived in. But, given the opportunity, she displays courage in times of crisis far beyond what the narrow-minded white men surrounding her in the boardroom, the dining club, and the stock exchange are capable of summoning. In a four-way phone call between Graham, Bradlee, and two members of her board, Graham embodies the phrase that became a feminist battle cry in 2017: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” And The Post makes it clear that she was right not to back down.
Secondly, traditional stalwarts of journalism, including the Post and the Times, have been under attack from both the government and financial forces in recent years. Though it comes off somewhat heavy-handed and might lack the staying power of other classic journalism films, The Post successfully serves as a stirring reminder that the press serves the governed, not the governors, and is crucial to our democracy.