One would think The Post had been created in a lab for the sole purpose of snagging Oscar nominations. Starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Directed by Steven Spielberg. An historical docudrama covering a well-known newspaper’s high-minded “act of courage” during fraught political times, with easy analogs to today’s battles — check, check, check. Yes, The Post is virtually pre-stamped “Reliably Entertaining” and “Certifiably Uplifting,” but it makes good on its glossy packaging.
Set in 1971, its primary drama is do-we-or-don’t-we publish the “Pentagon Papers” in The Washington Post. These leaked documents showed that current and past administrations had actively concealed that they knew the war in Vietnam was not winnable. The New York Times had published a portion, and was blocked by the courts from publishing more. But when The Post snags a copy of the papers, editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and publisher Katharine Graham (Streep) see an opportunity.
To publish the papers risks legal jeopardy, as well as entailing a huge financial gamble (The Post was then going public) and running afoul of President Nixon. And for Bradlee and Graham, it’s also personal: They travel in Washington, D.C.’s top social circle, same as some of the folks who will be undone by this reporting.
Spielberg splits the story into two major threads. One is an ensemble work, highlighting the doggedness of reporters determined to break news and impact history. (It is also an elegy to once-thriving analog news production, with its slammed phones, clattering typewriters and clinking bits of cold type.) The other thread is the “birth” late in life of Kay Graham, treated as a figurehead in room after room of men, into a powerful and formidable publisher. Streep gives one of her quieter performances — no crazy accents or histrionics — just an older woman completing a trajectory from cautious to confident, and securing a satisfying second act. (Indeed, the “sequel” — the Watergate affair — is going to be a real gangbuster.)
There is an excellent cast of supporting characters (many from your favorite TV shows) that are fun to discover clad in unflattering 1970s garments. But the big uncredited player is Donald Trump, whose nonstop assaults on government investigations, “fake news” and even The Washington Post make the film crackle with immediacy, even as Spielberg threatens to kill any frisson with his underlining and bold-facing. Bradlee trumpets such on-the-nose lines as “We can’t let an administration dictate our coverage just because they don’t like what we print about them in the newspaper” and “If we don’t hold them accountable, my god, who will?”
Thankfully, The Post has America’s favorite moral compass, Tom Hanks, to deliver them.