Not only is “The Post” my choice for number one film of the year (see The Best Ten Films of 2017), but it earns special applause because it is so very timely. It deals with the battle of the Washington Post for the right to publish the Pentagon Papers, which exposed government duplicity hiding knowledge that there was no hope of winning the Vietnam War. Fortunately, the battle for a free press was won, a lesson of the utmost importance given the attacks on the press coming from President Trump. At the time, 1971, it was President Nixon who fought—and lost—his battle to stifle the Washington Post, along with the New York Times, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the right to publish.
Ideology aside, “The Post” succeeds as an exciting, well-acted and directed film that makes the issues and personalities involved come vividly alive. It is top notch drama directed by Steven Spielberg with his well-proven expertise. Spielberg knows how to make a movie sparkle, and, even though we know the outcome, he creates suspense as the presses are prepared to roll if given the go-ahead signal. He emphasizes the old ways of setting newspaper stories in linotype, thus aiding depiction of the step-by-step process and dramatic buildup.
There are memorable performances that ignite the fire. Tom Hanks is superb as Ben Bradlee, the Post editor who navigates the need to get the story out. Meryl Streep, in yet another example of her acting prowess, is great as the Post publisher Katharine Graham. Streep projects the burdensome conflict of risking the paper just as business-wise it is on the verge of going public with a stock offering. Her facial expressions and manner reflect the anxiety attached, with instincts telling Graham that she must take a stand for press freedom and the paper’s reputation for honesty no matter the financial cost, while close advisors are telling her the opposite.
There is also a feminist aspect, emphasized in the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. Graham came into the position as publisher after her husband Philip’s death by suicide. The film shows how she is disdained as a woman in that position, and in her performance Streep slowly demonstrates how Graham must assert her power, a power that she never sought in the first place. There is a thrill when she gives the order to publish, both as a blow for press freedom and as a blow on behalf of a woman defying the advice of supposedly savvy men on her board. Director Spielberg knows how to extract the most out of such a situation.
The film also dramatizes how Graham must deal with those in government with whom she has been socially friendly when publication of the Pentagon Papers will damage their reputations. “The Post” is excellent in portraying the unease that mounts in this respect, notably with her friendship with then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood).
The supporting cast is first-rate, especially Matthew Rhys as Daniel Ellsberg as “The Post” follows his theft of the papers and the secrecy involved. The film also clarifies the complexity of the issues—difficult to do in a movie—such as the possibility of being prosecuted for collusion with the New York Times. There is also newspaper competitiveness, depicted by Bradlee wanting to get a scoop ahead of the Times and the sense of urgency that reverberates in the Post’s newsroom.
Newspaper tales have long had a role in movie history. The most pertinent in relation to “The Post” is the 1976 film “All the President’s Men.” The new film carries on the tradition in grand style and must be viewed as a major contribution to today’s need to preserve press freedom in face of the drumbeat of assault. A 20th Century Fox release. Reviewed December 21, 2017.