Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a fast-paced and engaging film, although less than subtle in its message. It recounts a few weeks in summer 1971 when newspapers battled the Nixon White House over the publication of wide-ranging excerpts from the Pentagon Papers. Although The Post generally makes its points in bold italics, its underlying message on the importance of a free press is still quite valid.
The Pentagon Papers, taken from a 1967 study of the Vietnam War ordered by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, exposed constant lies from powerful people about America’s situation in Indochina since the late 1940s. The most serious falsehoods dealt with the chances of victory in Vietnam. Experts agreed privately the war could not be won, but they continued to support it publicly.
Opening scenes in The Post show Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a Defense Department employee taking notes in a Vietnam battlefield. He is disgusted to hear McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) talking in private about how badly the war is going and, minutes later, giving a rosy account to the press.
Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee (Ton Hanks) notices when Sheehan does not have a by-line for three months. At this point, the Post is regarded as a small-town paper- and Bradlee wants this to change. He wants the Post to compete with the biggest and best.
Bradlee gets his opportunity when Sheehan’s story (the first excerpts from the Pentagon Papers) triggers an injunction from the Nixon White House. The Post obtains its own copy of the Papers and plans a story.
Unfortunately, this occurs at the same time publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) and other board members issue a public offering for the Post. Bradlee and Graham find themselves on opposite sides, with one championing a sure-fire story and the other simply concerned about keeping the Post in operation.
If freedom of the press is the film’s main theme, the difficulties encountered by professional women run a close second. Early in the film, Graham turns over a chair while walking to meet Bradlee in a restaurant. Men outshout her in meetings. Bradlee tends to take action without consulting her.
As the crisis builds, though, Bradlee and Graham find themselves relying on one another. He begins to consider how his actions might affect her. Graham discovers she can use being ignored to her advantage; businessman tend to exchange confidential information without noticing she is in the room. Graham promptly excuses herself and makes a telephone call to Bradlee.
The script, by Josh Singer and Liz Hannah, simplifies elements of history in the name of a more cinematic narrative. A perfect example is the relationship between Graham and McNamara, who were close personal friends. Singer and Hannah emphasize the friendship and imply that McNamara opposed publication of the Pentagon Papers. Katherine Graham’s memoir, Personal History, paints a very different picture of McNamara’s involvement.
Hanks and Streep, acting together for the first time, create fully realized versions of their well-known characters. Of the two, Hanks has the more difficult task, as he works against filmgoers’ memories of Jason Robards as Bradlee in All The President’s Men (Graham does not appear in that film). There are strong performances by the supporting cast, notably Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, the Post reporter who hunts down Ellsberg and obtains the Pentagon Papers.
A number of Spielberg regulars are present behind the camera: John Williams for music, Janusz Kaminski for cinematography, Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn for editing. Having seasoned pros on hand is essential with a rush production, and The Post definitely qualifies. Shooting began in May for a December release, although nothing in technical quality has been sacrificed.
Overall, this film pales before All The President’s Men (this week’s companion film on Thinking Cinema). I still recommend seeing The Post, if for no other reason than watching Bradlee (a former Kennedy confidante) come to realize the press must hold politicians to account. He says, “We have to be a check on their power. If we don’t, who will?” A relevant question, both in 1971 and today.
Theme: Political Corruption
Related Posts: Film Appreciation: All The President’s Men http://www.thinkingcinema.com/film-appreciation-all-the-presidents-men/
Political Corruption: List For Week Ending January 7, 2018 http://www.thinkingcinema.com/political-corruption-list-for-week-ending-january-7-2018/