In real life, the decision to run a series of articles about those revealing documents proved to be just as frightening an excursion; under the looming threat of an uncooperative Nixon administration, journalists were juggling their ethics against a political atmosphere that sought to quietly crush the process of a free press. But their defiant stand also set a precedent for which a generation of avid observers would come to look at their government not as an assembly of good intentions, but as a collection of corrupt businessmen who would willingly throw away thousands of innocent lives to protect their own interests. The Pentagon Papers – a series of classified documents that were smuggled out of Washington and into the hands of eager reporters – set the groundwork that would ultimately decide the fate of one such publication: the Washington Post, which was seen at the time as a frivolous periodical. Spielberg emphasizes this prospect effectively in an early scene: eager to compete, The Post’s fiery editor nearly crumbles in a heap of envy as his cover story – a fluff piece about the President’s daughter getting married – is contrasted against a headline in the Times about shocking coverups during the Vietnam War.
Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is relatively new to the role but has come to it with one primary agenda: to abolish the paper’s lightweight stigma and turn it into a serious contender in the face of fierce media scrutiny. One of his obstacles, however unintentional, is its owner Kay (Meryl Streep); she has recently inherited the paper from her deceased husband but lacks a journalistic wisdom. Her greatest asset, perhaps, also proves to be a key blind spot: a welcoming demeanor to figures of state, who come often to her house for social jaunts and highbrow celebrations. But she is also not shallow nor oblivious; her desires to help the Post rise above the muck of news fodder creates a balance of values, and always at the center of them is a need to do what’s right. Ben perceives this but is initially too gruff to penetrate the membrane of her defenses, and the early conversations they share are a skillful blend of respect and impatience, as if neither can see through their differing methods that they both have the same goal in mind.
On the cusp of their journey is the arrival of the forbidden government papers written by Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense under Lyndon Johnson, who just a couple of years prior completed a damning study of Vietnam. In those pages were admissions of startling honestly – among them the confession that deploying thousands more troops would, in fact, not have increased the United States’ odds of victory on the battlefield (this despite a very public promise of the opposite). Also in the documents were revelatory implications regarding the four administrations preceding Nixon, all of whom foresaw what was ahead but kept their foot firmly planted on the pedal of the American war machine. What was in it for them? Were they simply ruses for a much grander scheme? Spielberg’s film only deals with specifics so far, I would wager, because an elaboration would be far too complex, and thus derail the momentum the narrative. Bradlee is so driven by the story that when the Times is told to cease and desist publishing more under the risk of court battles, he makes it his mission to track down the source and proceed where they left off. Eventually that means he and his baffled associates will come in possession of thousands of Xeroxed pages directly from McNamara’s hand, and the movie shows their astonishment in a fantastic sequence where the actors are seen moving room through room as the pages are scattered across the carpets while important morsels are read aloud.
Though we see he is walking a dangerous tightrope, there is something refreshing about Bradlee’s purity in conviction. Hanks plays him as an everyman who sees past bureaucracy and adheres to the fundamental notion of noble intentions; it’s the responsibility of his staff to report what they find in these papers, and to hell with the prospect of legal battles. Of course that does not entirely sit well with Kay for two distinctive reasons: 1) she is fearful that publishing the material will sink the paper; and 2) McNamara is one of the central figures of her prestigious social circle. Streep, in the grand tradition of her sauciest roles, does a remarkable job balancing her sense of motivation with an underlying insecurity, especially during pivotal moments where she is forced to take a stand. Ultimately this plays right into the greatest moment of the film: that pertinent phone conversation between she and Ben while lawyers and friends attempt to discourage her from running the stories that could undo everything she hopes to preserve. Is her desire to protect the Washington Post greater, or is there any point in protecting anything when her very government was willing to send thousands of American children off to certain death, including her own?
Spielberg has always been a master at modulating an urgent mood, but in recent years seemed to move to the beat of more conventional outings that were far less sensational. His last great film, the biographical “Lincoln,” benefitted from performances and dialogue but lacked tension. But “The Post” sees him recalling his great days as a pilot for insurmountable situations filled with the pull of great emotional involvement. It is a classic study in modulating the mood of an audience. Observe, for instance, how he handles key exchanges in the 11th hour of this conflict by elevating the uncertainties of the situation. Watch as the men in the press room are huddled around the phone waiting for the signal to turn the machines on – assuming it will ever come. And notice how he allows the music to build and then move to a sudden silence as the faces of his key players are moved into swift close-ups. We react strongly because the skill of his direction encourages our investment. That he marries it all with sincere performances and insightful dialogue only enforces the meaning. Here is a movie that is important for all the reasons you’ve undoubtedly heard about but is also something few of us could have expected: genuinely exciting.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/History (US); 2017; Rated PG-13; Running Time: 116 Minutes
Meryl Streep: Kay Graham
Tom Hanks: Ben Bradlee
Sarah Paulson: Tony Bradlee
Bob Odenkirk: Ben Bagdikian
Bradley Whitfford: Arthur Parsons
Bruce Greenwood: Robert McNamara
Matthew Rhys: Daniel Ellsberg
Produced by Liz Hannah, Tom Karnowski, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Ben Lusthaus, Rachel O’Connor, Amy Pascal, Josh Singer, Adam Somner, Steven Spielberg, Tim White and Trevor White; Directed by Steven Spielberg; Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer