The Post transforms the black-and-white nature of journalism into riveting cinema

Tom Hanks is just the guy to defend the Fourth Estate in The Post.
Tom Hanks is just the guy to defend the Fourth Estate in The Post.

Steven Spielberg has made movies about dinosaurs and sharks and aliens and archeologists and war horses and crime-predicting psychics and big, friendly giants. It's probably not difficult to make such things exciting.

But this? The Post is a movie in which people sit around arguing about freedom of the press and journalistic ethics. Papers are shuffled and xeroxed. Lawyers are consulted. The most visually dynamic the movie ever gets involves the setting of hot type and the rattle of printing presses running off the next morning's newspaper. And it is all completely riveting.

The Post crackles with life and energy. It depicts the real events of almost half a century ago with an urgent relevance for today. Spielberg is surely a genius for having accomplished this alone, but also for bringing Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep together onscreen for the first time. They blaze with such chemistry that it's astonishing to realize that no one has cast them opposite each other before.

As, respectively, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham — at a key turning point for the newspaper in 1971 — their characters have nothing but a purely professional relationship, and an antagonistic one, at that. (The business end and the reporting end should not be entangled if the journalism is going to be good, and they get a bit entangled here, which becomes a source of conflict.) It's not romantic chemistry I'm talking about, but a rapport of the purest movie sort: These are two legendary actors at the tops of their games individually, who spark into something cinematically incandescent together.

What they are on fire over together is what turned out to be a signal event in the history of journalism. What came to be known as the Pentagon Papers was a secret analysis of the historical roots of the Vietnam War, a work commissioned by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The documents came to be known thus when they were leaked to the New York Times by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys).

"They knew we couldn't win," Ellsberg says here, "and still sent boys to die."

At first the Post is playing catch-up with the Times' scoop, but when the White House gets an injunction against any further revelations from the Pentagon Papers being published by the Times, the Post steps up. It has gotten its hands on the documents, too, but can they publish? Does that injunction apply to the Post as well?

The Post isn't a courtroom drama. It's not about the two newspapers fighting this clearly unconstitutional injunction with lawyers. Something more fundamental is going on here: Bradlee and Graham have to decide whether, in this chilly environment, it's worth taking the risk to publish in the first place. Mostly, it's down to Graham, and she's in a tough spot. She's about to take the family-run Post public, but the IPO can be scuppered by any controversy. Graham is already on thin ice as a woman holding unprecedented power in publishing. Would this double whammy simply be too much for investors to swallow?

The Post never outright asks the question, "why should news be profitable?" But it's all over the film anyway. It's full of confrontations between power and the imperative of speaking truth to that power, and it comes down on the Fourth Estate's side every time. Spielberg has given us a grand adventure in journalism that is so essential today, when once again the president is publicly bashing journalists and attempting to smear their reporting as "fake news."

It's an essential reminder that the press is rightly an adversary to the powerful, one that is needed now at least as much as it was in 1971. ♦

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    Maryann Johanson

    Maryann Johanson