PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – It’s Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks – with icons like these, first names are hardly necessary — together again for the first time.
And Steven, Meryl, and Tom are not only making a movie, but making a statement about the Trump administration’s attack on the press of late, and perhaps making some noise during the current awards season.
The Post – as in The Washington Post – is a historical biodrama and newspaper melodrama that finds master-class director Spielberg addressing the paper’s role in exposing the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
And his latest immediately takes its place among such restrained cinematic classics about journalism as All the President’s Men and Spotlight, yet another resonant reminder of the importance of freedom of he press.
The focus is on Post publisher Katharine Graham (the first female newspaper publisher), played by Streep, and Hanks’ executive editor Ben Bradlee, the two of whom decided to go ahead and publish after a federal judge had already short-circuited the similar efforts of the New York Times, which was challenging the federal government on the issue of their right to publish, given that they were exploring a cover-up that spanned four United States Presidents.
And, period piece that it is, don’t think for a second that today’s political climate – and all the parallels that the very existence of this project suggests with respect to the adversarial relationship between the Trump administration and the press — is lost on screenwriters Josh Singer and Liz Hannah or on the film’s three primary movers and shakers.
File it under Movies That Matter.
The script, which draws upon Graham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 memoir, “Personal History,” concentrates on the risky road traveled by Graham and Bradlee, sets itself up as a Watergate precursor, dramatizes the transformation of the titular newspaper from a regional publication to a national one, and ends up representing itself as a virtual prequel to All the President’s Men.
So, yes, it’s a love letter to principled print journalism. And why shouldn’t it be?
For Spielberg (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extraterrestrial, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, Lincoln, Saving Private Ryan) it’s ho hum, another keeper. But you can feel the film’s convictions in every frame.
The Pentagon Papers comprised a secret study initiated by Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, played by Bruce Greenwood, that chronicled the United States involvement in Vietnamese politics since the 1950s. It made it obvious that a succession of political administrations from both parties – going all the way back to the Truman administration – lied about the progress being made in the conflict and the prospects for any kind of real American victory.
That was what Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a contributor to the report who had been a State Department analyst and was now working for the Rand Corporation, initially leaked to the New York Times. It clearly demonstrated that the war was not winnable. And yet the war effort continued. But the Nixon administration’s blocking of any further publication left it up to the Post, and Ellsberg agreed to leak the papers to assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk).
Storyteller Spielberg is his usual deft overseer, conjuring considerable suspense, compelling and inspiring us even though we know the outcome in advance. But the emotional narrative spine is delivered by Streep’s Graham, who had unexpectedly taken over management of the paper after her husband committed suicide.
It is she who finds her voice along the way in a thrust that resounds deafeningly in this particular year of the woman.
The courageous Graham-Bradlee decision to publish not only threatened the paper’s very existence, but could have meant a prison term for the two of them.
And while Hanks provides an effective alternative reading of gritty crusader Bradlee, so memorably delivered by Oscar winner Jason Robards in All the President’s Men, Streep is her usual magnificently-nuanced-and-yet-underplaying self essaying a character who comes into her own in a beautifully calibrated performance that suggests an alternative title: Some of the President’s Men – and a Woman.
As for maestro Spielberg, he pretty much ignores technical flourishes – certainly an appropriate approach — and lets the loaded subject matter speak for itself, which it does by delving into moral, ethical, and legal nooks and crannies.
So we’ll publish 3-1/2 stars out of 4. The Post is, among other things, a political rejoinder by a supremely talented triumvirate. And it’s as robust and splendid as it is timely.