You can treat The Post as it stands, a well crafted Steven Spielberg film about a pivotal time in recent American history, delivered to screen by a stellar cast. But of course it’s impossible to look at it only that way, and nor are you meant to. Spielberg himself has said he practically rushed the production so that it would resonate all the more with current controversies swirling around the Trump administration.
The film starts in 1968, with what appears to be a covert U.S. military operation in the Vietnamese jungle. A squad of soldiers head out, accompanied by a man clearly not of the military. He’s an observer, part of an operation sanctioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, to plot U.S. military action in Vietnam and analyse it. The analysis goes back to the Truman presidency, taking in Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. Altogether, across thousands of pages, it shows those administrations lied to the public and to Congress about government involvement in Vietnam. The presidents knew the war was unwinnable, but kept sending more troops anyway. As the film explains, the main reason was not so much to protect democracy in Vietnam nor to halt the tide of the Communist march. It was to save face, not to be the one president responsible for a military defeat overseas. It was a damning indictment, contained in what came to be known as The Pentagon Papers.
The papers are leaked, and not at first to the Washington Post, but rather to the New York Times. And so the film tracks the course of the drama, from the Post’s efforts to match and better the Times story, all the way to the Nixon administration’s attempts to stifle the press, and then to the saga’s resolution in the Supreme Court.
A host of actors deliver convincing and engaging performances all round. You’d expect nothing less from the likes of Meryl Streep as The Post’s publisher Katharine Graham, Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee, Bob Odenkirk as reporter Ben Bagdikian, Tracy Letts as Katharine’s adviser Fritz Beebe, and Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara. If you know your American history you’ll know what’s coming in the story, but the actors keep you in the moment, and so the film maintains the edge of a political thriller throughout.
But it’s the broader themes at work here which will most likely take hold in your mind, again, as Spielberg is hoping for. So, we are confronted with how cosy media owners and managers are with political leadership; with the pressure from big business on the media not to rock the political boat; with the difficulty Katharine Graham finds asserting herself in a male dominated domain; and with the media’s willingness to challenge the law in order to hold politicians to account.
If there’s a criticism here it’s that the parallels being drawn with Donald Trump’s contempt of the mainstream media are hardly subtle. Katharine Graham reminds The Post’s backers (and all of us) that the mission of the press is to serve the governed, not the governors. This is one of several stirring speeches, and maybe we don’t need them to be so obvious. In what is an effective but extremely contrived scene, she walks down the steps of the Supreme Court through a gauntlet of admiring young women. Graham is rightly a flagbearer, for the media, for women in the workplace, for the #MeToo movement of today. These are hardly messages you are going to object to, but at times through the film you feel that messaging is a little blunt.
It’s worth mentioning the look of the movie, and in particular Spielberg’s efforts to recreate the old newspaper printing technology. It’s hands on, labour intensive, and light years away from modern digital media making. And in the sets and costumes the 60’s and early 70’s are referenced very well. And there’s a lovely in-joke here for anyone who remembers the seminal movies of those times. Early in the film we are inside the offices of a group of whistle blowers, and we see movie posters around the walls. The camera tracks across the well known image of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a huge hit in its day. The Sundance Kid, of course, was played by Robert Redford, who a few years later played the role of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, who together with colleague Carl Bernstein effectively ended the Nixon presidency with their work in the Watergate scandal. That movie was All The President’s Men. And this movie, The Post, serves as a prologue to all that. Neatly done.