Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Review: "The Post"

“The Post” is both rose-colored hagiography and a bracing call to arms. It summons up the days of our hallowed past, in which crusading newspapers took on the most powerful and risked their very enterprises to tell people the truth.

And it’s a not-at-all bashful reminder that this sort of thing is more needed now than ever before.

The film, directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, tells the tale of how the Washington Post in 1971 faced off with the Nixon administration to publish the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret review that captured the depth of the lies and depravity behind our nation’s tragic involvement in Vietnam.

It’s at once a terrific character study, with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks playing Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee, respectively, the publisher and editor of the Post. Hanks is very good -- he’s always very good -- but ultimately Streep carries the picture as an accidental leader who reaches inside herself to find strength and resolve.

The movie is also an excellent procedural drama, taking place over the course of just a few days as the Post reporting team first races to obtain the papers, which their rivals at the New York Times already had, and then Graham agonizes over whether to publish them in defiance of a federal injunction.

All of this was happening at the exact moment the Graham family was taking the company public on the stock exchange, in an effort to transform the Post from a “regional paper” into a titan to rival the Times on a national stage. This little-recognized bit of history, in which Graham had to make her decision knowing it could literally doom the newspaper, adds an extra layer of weight to the film.

Co-screenwriter Singer is fresh off an Oscar win for “Spotlight,” so we again see the painstaking attention to detail of how reporters dig up information, and editors/publishers decide what to do with it. “The Post” is an unsentimental portrait that underscores Bradlee’s rampant ambition; at one point he dispatches an intern to take a train to New York City and spy on the doings at the Times.

Graham and Bradlee are depicted as antagonists rather than allies, at least at first. He sees her as little more than a rich debutante who was handed the reins of a great newspaper after her husband killed himself -- a woman more concerned with society events and friendships with the elite than running a newsroom.

It’s perhaps unkind, but it’s also true: that’s how Graham sees herself. But again: only at first.

“Kathryn, keep your finger out of my eye,” he snarls at her at one point, in an engagement between boss and employee that seems very alien in today’s top-down times.

The rest of the cast is magnificent, and also expansive: Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, the lead reporter on the story; Carrie Coon as Meg Greenfield and David Cross as Howard Simons, other top scribes; Bruce Greenwood as Bob McNamara, former Defense Secretary and personal friend of Graham; Tracy Letts as Fritz Beebe, Graham’s right-hand man and rock; Bradley Whitford as the (overly) timid voice of caution; Matthew Rhys as Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who leaked the papers; Jesse Plemons as the young lawyer brought into defend the Post; and Michael Stuhlbarg as Abe Rosenthal, fierce competitor at the Times, and another Graham friend.

Spielberg’s direction shows the flair of a master who, at age 70, hasn’t lost anything off his fastball. I love the film’s tactile feel -- the dank grayness of the newsroom, the clanky busyness of the typesetters assembling the metal linotype for the next day’s front page. Longtime collaborator John Williams’ musical score paces the movie with energy and solidity.

“The Post” is a lot of things, and certainly a magnificent film is one of them. It’s about getting and running the truth, no matter the consequences. About how those in power use knowledge as something to withhold, distort or wield as a cudgel.

The thing I’ll take away the most from the movie is it’s a woman’s story. Katharine Graham, rich and renowned, suffered from imposter syndrome just as most of us do. She stood up in a world made by men and put her own mark on it.

There’s a terrific moment near the end, where they’re standing on the steps of the Supreme Court after having won a decision against the injunction. Rosenthal and the other men talk into the microphones, pronouncing for posterity. Kay Graham savors the victory for herself, striding down silently past a small sea of women who smile upon her with open admiration and gratitude.

Lovers of free speech, stand up: Your mother’s passing.

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