The Post – Film Review by Pat Viale
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Stars: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson
A lying president in the White House exacting revenge for any slight, well connected to money and ready to do whatever it takes to stay in power. The parallels between Washington 1971 and today couldn’t be more obvious. However, Steven Spielberg’s The Post is about more than one man and his efforts to abuse power and corrupt the political system. It is also the story of a long campaign of disinformation under successive administrations, from Eisenhower and Kennedy through Johnson and Nixon, all of whom withheld from Congress and the public their defence analysts’ true assessment of the war in Vietnam. The death of tens of thousands of young Americans and almost two million Vietnamese was a price worth paying rather than admitting the blunt truth that superpower USA could be defeated by a tiny underdeveloped Asian country whose people would never concede.
The central drama of the movie is the struggle between the Nixon White House to suppress the publication, initially by the New York Times and then the Washington Post, of the evidence of this deceit in what came to be known as The Pentagon Papers, documents secreted from the Pentagon by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys, best know for his role as a Russian spy in the TV series “The Americans”). The story moves from the public and the political worlds to the private and personal, and is often at its most engaging where these world overlap, as in the close friendship between Post owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) and Defence Secretary Robert MacNamara and the Kennedys. Her editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and his wife were also intimate friends of the Kennedys. So the dilemma about whether to publish and risk being jailed for breaching national security, as threatened by the White House, is further complicated by a sense of personal loyalty to friends and associates. Graham‘s wrestling with her conscience, her response to pressure and threats and her eventual decision are the core of the plot.
Streep’s Graham is predictably excellent. Unlike many of her assured, grande dame roles, here she strains and struggles to reconcile the conflicting demands of friendship, politics and business. What if her board is right: will investors abandon her and bankers close her down? How can she expose the duplicity of old personal friends, the memory of her late husband’s friendship with Jack Kennedy being still fresh? Nixon, she is told, will do whatever it takes to ruin her newspaper. Everything is riding on her decision.
Tom Hanks’s Ben Bradlee is superb, occasionally narky and impatient, more often charming and cajoling, always doggedly persistent in pursuit of the story. In fact, the whole movie is a brilliant ensemble piece, peopled with convincing bankers and board members, bustling waiters in smoke-filled restaurants, socialite party guests, pressurised reporters and newsroom men (in period shirt and tie). There are great set pieces such as the hot setting of the printing presses and the huge newspaper conveyor belts, soaring up through vaulted spaces signalling “game on”. The effect of a convoy of trucks leaving the Post loaded with the edition carrying explosive revelations is almost like the turning point in a war movie. The Press Strikes Back!
The Post resonates powerfully with today’s Washington and is clearly intended to do so. Obviously, Spielberg has in mind Trump’s efforts to muzzle reputable networks such as CNN and CNBC, describing critical media including the BBC as “fake news” and The New York Times and Washington Post as “failed Enemies of the People”. These pronouncements carry as much credibility as his description of Streep as an “overrated actress”. However, that he presents a real threat to a free press and consequently to democracy is clearly to the forefront of Spielberg’s mind in making the film. The Post is a great movie – and an important one too.