Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks are reason enough to watch THE POST but director Steven Spielberg has also made an urgent, timely movie you must see.
Seeing Steven Spielberg’s superb new film THE POST in the same week as Joe Wright’s equally brilliant DARKEST HOUR was quite something. Two movies, set in two completely different periods but both equally prescient for the time we’re living in right now. And just as Wright’s slice of World War II history has been lauded as a triumph of strength against tyranny, so has Spielberg’s spot-on recreation of the events of 1971 when a female newspaper publisher and her editor fought for the freedom of the press in the face of a corrupt administration.
In a world of ‘fake news’ as soon as Spielberg read Liz Hannah’s sharp script, he put work on his current project Ready Player One on hold in order to make this film. From that first reading to the final cut was a span of just nine months – an incredible feat considering its stars are two of the biggest ‘A’ listers out there: Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. But this story of The Washington Post owner Kay Graham – another exquisite portrayal by Streep – finding her feet and her power in a world surrounded by men who want to silence her and feisty Post editor Ben Bradlee – ditto in Hanks’ performance – needed to be told now. And you feel that great sense of urgency when watching THE POST, not just from the whip-smart pace of Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn’s editing but also from the events themselves and how these people over 45 years ago risked everything to make sure this particular story was published.
And what was that story? It starts in 1965 when Matthew Rhys’ studious military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, newly returned from Vietnam, witnesses the Secretary of State Robert McNamara (an always excellent Bruce Greenwood) lie to the press saying the war in south-east Asia is getting better – a direct reversal of what Ellsberg had reported to him. Ellsberg then discovers evidence that four U.S. presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson) have all lied to the American people, covering up the truth about the war. Smuggling out copies of classified documents that detail what went on, the film then moves to 1971 as Ellsberg’s whistleblowing story called the ‘Pentagon Papers’ is on the verge of being published by the celebrated New York Times.
At that time, The Washington Post is nowhere near as well regarded as The Times and is seen more as a local newspaper. Taking over the leadership of the paper from her late husband, Kay Graham initially relies heavily on the advice of her close friend Fritz Beebe (a sublime Tracy Letts) as to how to make the paper more successful. But the key relationship that Graham will forge, which then marks the defining of the newspaper, is with her hard-as-nails editor Bradlee. Although The Post has some talented reporters – key among them the terrific Bob Odenkirk’s diligent Bob Bagdikian – and they themselves are close to publishing the story as well, Graham and Bradlee watch in frustration the New York Times scoop The Washington Post and publish the Pentagon Papers. However when President Nixon then takes The Times to court, restricting them from any further publication of the story, it’s up to the publisher and her editor to decide whether to continue to publish the newly acquired classified documents Bagdikian has since received from Ellsberg and risk prison, in order to let the public know the truth.
The scenes between Streep and Hanks are like watching an acting masterclass but they also powerfully show an intelligent woman and an intelligent man finding a common language to fight for something they believe in. It’s inspiring stuff as we see Graham grow in confidence and become a leader by making one of the most difficult decisions of her life. With an astonishing ensemble cast that alongside the great actors I’ve already mentioned, you also have Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, Michael Stulbarg and Jesse Plemons, Spielberg has given us a thought-provoking, exquisitely realised movie that I think, stands amongst his best work. And he so cleverly, right at the end of the film, gives us a kind of coda to the main story as you’re taken right into the beginning of Alan J. Pakula’s journalistic masterpiece All the President’s Men so you leave the cinema wanting to go and watch that movie again – and I did – fantastic.
When I first saw the trailer for THE POST, it seemed to me that the story might be a little swallowed under John Williams’s fanfare-type score. How wrong I was, because the music beautifully champions these journalists and their actions, making you cheer for the eventual victory against Nixon’s White House that is so richly deserved. I don’t think it’s giving anything away to reveal the historic ending of this story as it doesn’t diminish one ounce of the power of this urgent, timely movie you just have to see.