An erratic, vindictive, tantrum-prone president. Two great newspapers trying to do their jobs in the face of his withering attacks. An epic fight over the First Amendment. 2017? No, it’s 1971, in Steven Spielberg’s eerily timed Pentagon Papers drama The Post.
The above will be the standard take on The Post, Spielberg’s unabashed prequel to All the President’s Men, and for good measure the hacks will note that the film’s co-star, Meryl Streep — on the strength of her January Golden Globes speech, which she devoted entirely to attacking the president — is as strongly identified with anti-Trump sentiment as any major Hollywood player. For these reasons, The Post stands to be one of the leading contenders to win the Best Picture Oscar on March 4. Academy voters who are dying to turn the ceremony into an expression of revulsion for Trump will have no better weapon this year with which to attack him.
Yet The Post is simply a potent newspaper thriller that could have been released in the Obama years (when it was written) or for that matter at any other point in recent decades. It offers very little in the way of actual parallels to Trump, and to Spielberg’s credit he doesn’t include any overt Trump bashing. Hysteria-prone Hollywood liberals who see the president’s likeness in every passing cloud will be thinking of him throughout the movie, but only because hysteria-prone Hollywood liberals are prone to hysteria.
The movie selects a strange vantage point: It’s mostly about how the Post’s editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and its owner-publisher, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), tried to catch up to a story generated by the New York Times: the blockbuster series of exposés about internal Defense Department deliberations on Vietnam known as the Pentagon Papers. Shared by the Pentagon with the think tank the RAND Corporation, they were purloined from RAND’s offices by anti-war RAND analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked them to Times Vietnam reporter Neil Sheehan in an effort to discredit the Pentagon and American involvement in the war generally.
The Pentagon Papers revealed that public statements of U.S. officials, notably Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), were much rosier than their private assessments. Along with the Watergate cover-up that began splashing across the pages of the Post two years later, the Pentagon Papers became one of the principal reasons that many Americans began to harbor suspicions about the federal government, which they had previously trusted. Today, of course, the public trusts neither the government nor the media, but it would take a more ironically minded filmmaker than Steven Spielberg to capture that in a film.
The newspaper sleuthing in The Post isn’t nearly as intricate or compelling as what Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein do in All the President’s Men; one of the paper’s editors (Bob Odenkirk) simply guesses that Ellsberg, a guy he knew when he worked at RAND, is the source of the Times story, calls him up, and gets Ellsberg to provide him with a copy of the Pentagon Papers. Spielberg tries to make this look more interesting than it is, but making 50 phone calls in an effort to track down some guy’s number is the kind of thing journalists (used to) do every day.
Late in the movie we come to the real point: the First Amendment case that the Times and the Post were forced to pursue into the Supreme Court after the Justice Department (at the urging of Henry Kissinger more than Richard Nixon) enjoined the Times from publishing what the government insisted contained official secrets damaging to national security. In a breathless sequence in The Post, the paper’s lawyers warn that even though it has not received an injunction from the DOJ, it could be liable anyway if it obtained the Pentagon Papers from the same source as the Times, which it did.
Bradlee shrugs at all of this, but for him, the risk-reward is a no-brainer. He knows he’ll be a hero for publishing, and if he blows up his employer in the process, he can easily find another job. Because Hanks is in the hero business, he doesn’t quite grasp the self-serving nature of Bradlee’s actions, and neither does Spielberg, a friend of Bradlee’s. Moreover, Hanks’s attempts to show he has burrowed into the character by rendering Bradlee’s voice as a back-of-the-throat growl serve only to remind us how effortlessly Jason Robards played the same role in All the President’s Men.
It’s for Graham that publishing the Papers means everything, and luckily we have Streep to portray her magnificently. Publishing could mean a felony conviction for Graham, which in turn would prohibit her from owning the TV stations the Washington Post Company then held and could also jeopardize the company’s IPO, which was happening concurrently. This is real risk, and it’s riveting to watch Streep convey doubt and uncertainty. Much more at home at social events than on the job, Graham never expected to run her father’s company. Instead, her husband Philip was given the reins, but after his suicide, she was pressed into service.
Far from playing Graham as steely and confident, Streep instead plays her as a passive, genteel product of her times, timid and withdrawn when called upon to lead. Under stress, her eyes tear up instead of blazing with determination. Streep’s Graham makes no ringing cry to start the presses (though Hanks’s Bradlee does: “Run it!”). She simply finds just enough courage to make the right move. She is hesitantly bold. (In an aside that Spielberg plays for a welcome laugh, she says she hopes she never has to go through anything like that again.)
Spielberg slightly overplays the point that Graham was a trailblazer — he has her exit the Supreme Court as a line of women forms to gaze upon her like Catholics at a papal audience. But Streep is sublime. At the core of her genius as a performer — and she has earned the right to be called the greatest actress in Hollywood history — is that she keeps finding another approach, keeps surprising us. Her Katherine Graham shows us how history is sometimes made by people who are forced into the spotlight. She would become the first woman to head a Fortune 500 company.
Journalists participated in cover-ups of facts that would have embarrassed powerful people because they liked being friends with them.
An even more important detail in The Post, though, is one that Spielberg seems to have discovered as an afterthought. Yet no movie, as far as I know, has given it as much consideration as it gets here. Tom Wolfe pointed out that in the 1960s, the press operated like a “Victorian gent.” Journalists participated in cover-ups of facts that would have embarrassed powerful people because they liked being friends with them. This was never more true than during the administration of John F. Kennedy — Caligula to the insiders, Camelot to the suckers. Bradlee was one of JFK’s pals, and in The Post he has a Colonel Nicholson moment about it: What have I done?
The lasting importance of the Pentagon Papers was not that they altered the course of the Vietnam War (I’m not sure they did) but that they heralded a media Reformation, a new era of doubt and iconoclasm in which journalists like Bradlee (and Graham, who was personal friends with McNamara) chose an antagonistic new stance toward institutions. This isn’t activism or partisanship: Journalists should relentlessly investigate whatever Washington is doing, regardless of party. While it’s true that the media are much more hostile to one party than the other, the principle is a valid one: Journalists should be diggers, not Victorian gents.