Directed by: Steven Spielberg/2017
While deep into the editing process for his latest blockbuster, Ready Player One (coming summer 2018), director Stephen Spielberg read through a script that, though it wasn’t a final draft, instantly grabbed him. He decided that this was a film that must be made now, and within 9 months of reading the script, he has given birth to a film that will definitely get some looks at award season. It is called The Post.
The Post is the story of the Washington Post, and their efforts to publish what is now known as “The Pentagon Papers”, but was actually titled “United States-Vietnam Relations 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense”, a report commissioned by Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). This report was leaked by a man named Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) to the New York Times who began publishing its contents and the story that the U.S. Government, across 4 Presidential administrations, had lied to the American public about its policies surrounding our involvement in Vietnam.
Ellsberg had turned against the war, and photocopied over 43 volumes that he eventually leaked. While the New York Times decided to publish, arguing a first amendment right for the public to understand what policies their government was pursuing, a judge eventually got these stories shut down, with pressure from the Nixon White House, with a court order for the Times to not publish any further information from this governmental report.
While the Times is seen as the newspaper of record for the country, The Washington Post is a struggling paper in D.C. looking for its identity following the death of its founder, and the subsequent control of the paper falling to his wife, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep). A woman running a newspaper, was unheard of at the time, and her board, led by Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), seeks to support her on one hand in order to strengthen the value of the company, while on the other hand, looking for ways to wrest control away from her.
They especially disproved of Mrs. Graham’s chosen hard-nosed editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), who sees the Nixon administration’s involvement of helping to silence the press, which he believes has a duty to report the truth to the American people, as a gross overstep of its power. As they begin to rundown the source of the Times’ story, in order to run the story themselves as a way to fight back against the suppression by the courts of their first amendment rights and to demonstrate that their little paper is also deserving of national recognition, they will run into constant resistance, and see a situation threaten their company as they simultaneously are taking the company public.
The Post, while rooted in the specific “Pentagon Papers” events, is extremely relevant to today’s political discussions about the role of the press, the Executive and Judicial Branches of our government, and ultimately the rights of the American people. It demonstrates not just the level of cover-up our government is capable of, but the often opposing forces of a business like a newspaper who is dedicated to seeking the truth, and maintaining financial profitability. The Post also looks at the struggle of a woman who is learning to navigate a field that has largely been dominated by men, looking to demonstrate that she can handle the pressures just as well as any man, despite being told messages to the contrary, and fighting against a system that wants to see her fail.
Written by relative newcomer Liz Hannah, and veteran writer Josh Singer (The West Wing), who won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Spotlight, The Post builds drama effectively by showcasing the detailed process of investigative journalism. Like Spotlight, the film largely manages to avoid making political commentary of its own, allowing the narrative themes in the story being told to be internalized and applied to the world we find ourselves in 2017 where the role of the press is being debated daily. With terms like “fake news” being bandied about by the current administration, and a news media and press which largely answer to shareholders and seek ratings and audience share as a measure of success, undermining their credibility with a cynical public, there is much relevance here in this story.
The Post is extremely well acted with a powerhouse cast of not just Streep and Hanks, but with a fantastic supporting cast made up of the already mentioned Greenwood, Rhys, and Whitford, but also Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Alison Brie, and David Cross, to name a few. The importance of investigative journalism, and reporters committed to truth, even if it goes against their preferred political leanings, is something that is out of place by today’s sensibilities. It is refreshing to see the kind of commitment these journalist have to getting the facts “right”, while still juggling the pressures of deadlines, competing with other papers for scoops, and the like.
The Post may be an extremely “rushed” film project by Spielberg from first read to the finished project in the same year, while prepping a giant film for a summer release, but it is as tight as any of the other top films of this year, of which it stands as an equal to them in every way. I fully expect that The Post will be in award discussions this year. In a year where it seems that we are politically more polarized now than at any other time in our more modern history, it is a valuable exercise to look back at a time in the past of how we struggled with many of the same questions, and through the vital first amendment right of a free press, held our government up to the standard of truth, no matter what efforts were employed against them. We need to see that we should always follow the facts, even if the truth that they lead us to costs us politically.
The Post seeks to demonstrate that the truth is the only standard we should hold our collective government and our free press t0. We may not always get it right, but people like Kay Graham, Ben Bradlee, and their team demonstrate that we’ve held the press and our government to higher standards in the past, and the possibility of what that may look like if we were able to start to do so again. Remarkably, the film does so without ever being preachy. Spielberg’s best approach to showing the relevance of these issues in today’s political climate was never going to happen by making a partisan-styled “sermon” film pushing a certain agenda. His best approach is fortunately the one he took: namely telling the story with as many facts as possible, and letting the American people decide for themselves. Newspapers used to simply put these facts in black and white (literally). The Post shows that its time we got back to that again.