In 1967, US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) commissioned a study of the war in Vietnam. That study revealed that the US government knew that the conflict was hopelessly unwinnable. Yet they continued to pursue the war largely to save face. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) began smuggling out and copying that study, delivering it to the New York Times. When the Times began to publish stories based on those papers, the Nixon White House issued an order barring the Times from continuing – but the papers were still out there, somewhere.
Publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) is on the verge of taking The Washington Post public when Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) finds a way to get hold of those papers. She must decide how her small town, family-run paper will react. Will she publish the papers and potentially be shut down? Or will she cave under immense pressure from an all-male, chauvinistic board, as well as the United States Government? Will she stop Bradlee from publishing?
What follows is a tense portrait of a watershed moment in American history. It’s the story of a woman coming into her own and standing up against many rooms full of powerful men. (As well as the US government itself.) It’s also a defining moment in the preservation and upholding of the Right to Free Speech—a time and a tale that cannot be forgotten.
So it’s just All the President’s Men or Spotlight?
The Post certainly follows in a long line of reporter and whistleblower heroism, recalling All the President’s Men, Spotlight, Snowden, and Good Night and Good Luck. This is Spielberg’s love letter to words and journalism. Also to the strength of people to stand up to immense power; hold it accountable. In this, he succeeds in spades.
Also, for better or for worse, the footsteps in which The Post walks are not always the most action-packed. For me, that’s just fine. I’m a lover of words and speech and history – this film is tailor-made for me. Others I know who have seen the film can rightly critique it for its lack of action. Or its long stretches of dialogue or people sitting, reading and typing. But Spielberg, ever-accompanied by John Williams’ moving score (which I’m listening to as I write this), finds the emotion in every moment, making me forget that I’m just watching people talk and write.
How do we find emotion in a historical drama about papers?
You hire Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks (and everyone else in Hollywood… seriously!). Streep delivers a subtle, landmark performance, supported by a gruff and grumpy Tom Hanks who rivals Jason Robards’ subtler Oscar-winning performance as Ben Bradlee.
At every step, Streep finds a way to remind us of the precarious position that Graham found herself in as the publisher of the Washington Post–a post she was never supposed to hold. She was the first female newspaper publisher at such a high level. As such nearly every man she comes across underestimates her, devalues her, and patronizes her. So throughout the film, she struggles to mediate not only the men around her, who would rather she step aside to let them make decisions, but also to grow beyond her own lack of experience and confidence.
Whether through the fidgety fondling of her glasses or the hesitant mumbling in board meetings or just a small look in her eye, Streep conveys both the internal and external barrier that Graham and women like her needed to push through. Ultimately, in a wordless scene, Streep strides from the Supreme Court building, passing through a crowd comprised of dozens of young women, all watching her, head held high, knowing she’s in the right. Spielberg knows exactly which strings to pull in our hearts here.
Where does The Post stand this Oscars Season?
This film, despite getting a significant snub during this year’s BAFTA nominations, is doing well overall. It’ll likely garner quite a few Oscar nominations, especially Best Picture and Director, as well as for Streep (very likely) and Hanks (slightly less likely). I doubt we’ll get many big wins there, although if she wins here, she’ll tie the great Katharine Hepburn for most wins. I loved Streep here, but I want Saoirse Ronan for Best Actress.
I’m also a big film score fan, listening to them almost constantly while writing or grading, and John Williams is always amazing – he does a great job here, not falling into old measures or motifs, but doing something new. In fact, I almost thought it was Thomas Newman, with whom Spielberg collaborated on Bridge of Spies. It’s an excellent, Oscar-worthy score.
While I understand that the rhetorical, political nature of The Post may not be to everyone’s liking, this is a solid film that underscores a message that’s all too important in today’s heavy political climate.
This was not fake news being reported by Bradlee and his people. These were no alternative facts: the government systematically lied to the American people and then attempted to suppress the newspapers’ intrinsic, basic American rights to report those facts.
Truth is truth, and it needs to be told.