The Post opens with the sounds of whirring helicopter blades over a black screen, before dropping us into the middle of a jungle sortie, circa Vietnam 1966. Caught in the firefight is military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, played by Matthew Rhys. The vicious attack by unseen Viet Cong is staged by the film’s director, Steven Spielberg, with typical flair, a kind of guerrilla sequel to his Normandy landing. But this sequence is much briefer than the one in Saving Private Ryan (1998), and editors Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn cut abruptly from the middle of the battle to Ellsberg typing up his report back at camp after the slaughter.
As the opening to a film subsequently set almost entirely in newsrooms and Washington townhouses, this feels like a constitutional: a hit-out before all the shot/reverse-shots of the dialogue scenes, as well as a reminder that Spielberg’s late-career interest in civics, with Lincoln (2012) and Bridge of Spies (2015) and now this, hasn’t dulled his way with an action sequence.
It is also, of course, a visceral reminder of all the waste and carnage. The Post chronicles the way in which crusading journalists exposed the needless prolonging of a failed US involvement in Vietnam. Only they are not the film’s heroes. The New York Times broke the Pentagon Papers, while The Washington Post, led by editor Ben Bradlee (played here by Tom Hanks), had the first daughter’s wedding on their front page. And one of the most interesting things about the script, by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (Spotlight), is that it focuses on the also-rans.
After he returns from Vietnam, Ellsberg begins spiriting documents out of the Pentagon, photocopying them at night. Rhys, who made his name in the television series The Americans (2013– ), is an old hand at the motel rendezvous, and Spielberg gives these early scenes a spy-movie bounce, with tense scenes at RAND security checkpoints, and high-angle shots of Hanks pulling up to the Post building in the middle of the night.
The paper’s newsroom is stocked by a murderer’s row of television stars, such as Carrie Coon (The Leftovers [2014–2017]) and Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul [2014– ]), but the film is really about Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the Post’s uncertain, newly minted publisher. The first woman to hold the job after succeeding her husband, who killed himself, Graham is second-guessed by her board (presided over by Bradley Whitford, cementing his post-Get Out status as baddie du jour) and viewed with scepticism by Bradlee, who is aware of his boss’s close friendships with the likes of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood).
Hanks is perfectly cast as the dry, irascible Bradlee, with a wife at home played by Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave ) and a framed picture of JFK, an old drinking buddy, on the mantelpiece. (Bradlee was the brother-in-law of Mary Meyer, Kennedy’s mistress during the presidency, not seen in the film.) Bradlee’s domestic life is in contrast to Graham’s, who spends her evenings playing hostess, making toasts, and confiding tearily in her daughter (Community star Alison Brie, given too little to do). One of her chief supports is business consigliere Fritz (playwright–actor Tracy Letts), who fends off the wolves of the board and proffers even-handed advice with weary diplomacy.
Once an injunction is placed on the Times and the Post gets its hands on Ellsberg’s papers, a decision has to be made: publish and risk being held in contempt, or leave the Times to swing in the breeze. Graham’s anxiety is exacerbated by the fact she has just floated the company – a company her father bought in 1933 – and risks losing it if the courts decide to charge her with treason. With a breathy voice and matronly wig – not to mention a spectacular kaftan – Streep has the difficult task of playing sustained indecision, and she uncharacteristically avoids barnstorming. Even her triumphant decision to publish is delivered haltingly. Brief moments in the performance linger, too, like Streep’s double take in the newsroom after a staff member brushes past her roughly. A male owner, the film suggests, would be treated with a little more deference.
Spielberg periodically cuts to a long shot of Nixon – or, at least, the back of Nixon’s head – speaking on the phone in the West Wing. Nixon’s real recorded voice plays over the top, demanding that nobody from the Post ever be allowed inside the White House ever again, and the actor playing Nixon draws an unambiguous line between Dick and the incumbent. That equivalence bridges the film’s twin themes, the patriarchy and freedom of the press, by locating the government as the embodiment of one and enemy of the other.
Nixon’s eventual fall supplies Spielberg with his final scene, too – after endless ones that look and sound final, à la Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King – with a security guard discovering a break-in at the Watergate. Munich (2006) likewise ended with a shot of the twin towers, one of the most plainly political of Spielberg’s career. But there is no sticking-the-neck-out here. Instead the film’s postscript feels cute, a touch obvious, and very, very hopeful.
The Post (Entertainment One), 116 minutes, directed by Steven Spielberg. In cinemas 11 January 2018.
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