Steven Spielberg felt an urgency. At a time when the United States had elected a president who made it one of his top priorities to attack the free press, to label any newspaper or TV network that had any kind of critical coverage of his administration ”fake news”, we needed a movie that stood by the principles that are supposed to make America one of the world’s premier democracies. That’s what he found in a screenplay by Liz Hannah, a young writer who hadn’t yet gotten any of her scripts filmed. She had read ”Personal History”, former Washington Post publisher Kay Graham’s biography, and adapted it; with assistance from Spotlight (2015) co-writer Josh Singer the screenplay became a superb foundation for Spielberg to work his magic – and preach his message.
In the late 1960s, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) commissions a top-secret study of classified government documents on the background of the Vietnam War. A few years later, military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) photocopies the study, called the Pentagon Papers, and brings the files home. In 1971, he leaks them to the New York Times who begin to publish sensational news stories showing how administrations dating back to the Truman years lied to the public about America’s involvement in Southeast Asia. The Nixon Administration immediately tries to stop the Times from publishing the sensitive material.
At the same time, the Washington Post is going through a tumultuous period; when they suddenly come close to also getting their hands on the Pentagon Papers, publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) has a difficult decision to make…
Missing an important point
In a way, this isn’t really the full story of the Pentagon Papers and the battle between the free press and the Nixon White House. Several people who were involved at that time have criticized the film for downplaying the role of the New York Times, and they’re right. The battle was largely fought by that newspaper. But they’re missing an important point. This is also the story of how the Washington Post, through the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scoop, became a national newspaper; this was not done without taking huge risks at a time when Kay Graham, the first female publisher of a major newspaper, was new in her role, having inherited it after the suicide of her husband.
The Post is very much the story of how Graham matured, a woman who truly loved her newspaper but felt insecure and alone in a world completely dominated by men (which Spielberg frequently illustrates in clever ways, including a quietly triumphant moment when Graham exits the Supreme Court and passes through a crowd of young women who admiringly observe this powerful woman, as the men keep talking to reporters in the background).
Streep is marvelous in this role, and it’s pure joy watching her scenes together with Tom Hanks as editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, two people who were close friends with the Kennedys and McNamara and, just like their readers, had to face the feeling of being betrayed by people they admired.
The film is deeply rooted in modern history in a riveting way, clearly tied to current events – and I love how the final shot is virtually the opening scene of All the President’s Men (1976), which continues the story told here. Nixon’s own voice from Oval Office recordings are used to great effect and the film reinforces an irresistibly nostalgic feel, with iconic, beautiful shots of fresh newspapers hanging from production lines snaking through the basement of the Post.
The Post 2017-U.S. 116 min. Color. Produced by Kristie Macosko Krieger, Amy Pascal, Steven Spielberg. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer. Music: John Williams. Cast: Meryl Streep (Katharine ”Kay” Graham), Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee), Sarah Paulson (Antoinette ”Tony” Bradlee), Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford… Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Michael Stuhlbarg.
Trivia: The story of Ellsberg was told in the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2010).
Last word: “I was really depressed about the way things were happening in the world and in the country, and Liz Hannah, 31 years old, writes a spec script, gets it to Amy Pascal, who sends it to me, and suddenly my entire outlook on the future brightens. Our intended audience [is] the people who have spent basically the last 13, 14 months thirsting and starving for the truth.” (Spielberg, Indiewire)