Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote that the Founding Fathers enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment because “the press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” That quotation turns up in “The Post,” which is about the 1971 Pentagon Papers case that Black was responding to, in which the Nixon administration tried to stop newspapers from publishing leaked documents that showed Nixon and previous presidents lying about Vietnam.
But I read the quote again — “the press was to serve the governed, not the governors” — less than two weeks after “The Post” came out, in the memo that the CEO of Macmillan sent to employees explaining why they were ignoring Donald Trump’s cease-and-desist letter about Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.” Trump had tried the same thing as Nixon (albeit more ham-handedly and with even less legal justification), and the answer was the same. In case you were wondering whether a movie about journalists in 1971 could be relevant in 2018.
Steven Spielberg’s latest is another old-fashioned tribute to American ideals, told with the director’s usual flair for storytelling and a command of the camera that makes commanding a camera look easy. He casts one of his all-American stalwarts, Tom Hanks, as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, and Meryl Streep (whose only prior Spielberg experience was as the voice of the Blue Fairy in “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”) as Katharine “Kay” Graham, the socialite-turned-publisher who inherited The Post after her husband’s death and, when the film takes place, is still struggling to get her footing as the company prepares to go public.
In June 1971, The Post is still considered a “local” paper — an important one, given that it covers the nation’s capital, but local nonetheless, far less powerful than The New York Times, whose top editor (Michael Stuhlbarg) shares a friendly professional rivalry with Bradlee and Graham. When The Times publishes excerpts from a classified Pentagon study showing that American leaders knew the war in Vietnam was unwinnable as early as 1965, The Post scrambles to play catch-up and track down the same documents, which run to several thousand pages and may contain other bombshells. Of course, pursuing this story could get The Post into the same legal trouble The Times is now in. Ben Bradlee’s job as editor is not to care about things like that. Kay Graham’s job as publisher is to figure out how much she ought to care.
The screenplay, by “Spotlight” writer Josh Singer and newcomer Liz Hannah, gives Ben and Kay several meaty scenes to discuss journalism, the First Amendment, and speaking truth to power, and Spielberg wisely gets out of Streep and Hanks’ way. A single early scene at a breakfast meeting conveys Ben and Kay’s personalities with great clarity — his newspaperman’s blustery irreverence, her socialite’s refined manners and tact — as well as their professional camaraderie and mutual respect. Their interactions ring true with every publisher-editor interaction I ever saw or heard about in my own days at a print newspaper, back in the early part of this century.
Spielberg dives enthusiastically into the minutiae of 1970s journalism, with its rotary phones, teletype machines, and shoe-leather reporting. Post staffers played by Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Pat Healy, Carrie Coon, and others pursue leads and comb through documents with fine cinematic urgency. Business advisers, potential investors, and lawyers played by Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons, Zach Woods, and others debate the prudence of The Post’s course of action, which Kay Graham must ultimately sign off on. If you don’t know (or don’t remember) the historical details, “The Post” works as a suspenseful political thriller.
That’s the foreground plot. In the background, it’s about Graham coming into her own as America’s first female newspaper publisher (a distinction the film doesn’t mention), and gradually realizing how her life and career have been affected by sexism. Streep is wonderful in the role, making numerous small, pitch-perfect character choices without any big capital-A Acting. Graham is comfortable addressing a group of well-heeled partygoers in a fancy living room (she seems to be hosting a different soiree every night), but put her in a boardroom full of besuited men — men who generally treat her with pity or condescension — and she freezes up. She’s Ben Bradlee’s boss, but he has so much more hands-on experience than she does. Yet over the course of the film, in the process of overseeing a momentous week in The Post’s history, Kay becomes stronger. Brief but crucial scenes with Ben’s wife (Sarah Paulson) and Kay’s daughter (Alison Brie) help underscore Kay’s character arc … which, as it turns out, mirrors The Washington Post’s. Both are meek but scrappy when we start, fully equipped to brawl with the big boys by the time we finish.
It is possible to watch “The Post” and think it has too much on-the-nose speechifying. That was my reading the first time I saw it. But on re-watch, I was won over by the film’s earnestness, by the inspiring sight (however Hollywoodized it may be) of multiple intelligent adults standing up for what they sincerely believe is in the best interest of their nation. I was genuinely moved by Kay’s personal journey, and by Ben’s (his eyes are opened to the depth of Kay’s sacrifices), and by the noble pursuit of truth in the service of journalism. These things are corny in the wrong hands, but Steven Spielberg’s hands are the right ones. No one alive is better at conveying what makes America uniquely great, or at getting an audience to believe that everything will be OK if we just do what we know is right.
B+ (1 hr., 56 min.; )