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After The New York Times begins publishing articles based on the “Pentagon Papers”, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) looks to get in on the story. At the same time, Katherine ‘Kay’ Graham (Meryl Streep) – the Post’s owner/publisher – is preparing to take the company public and a crisis could jeopardise the whole deal. “The Pentagon Papers” are part of a classified report on US involvement in the Vietnam conflict that showed, among other things, that the scope of their involvement had secretly been enlarged and that the Johnson Administration had lied to both congress and the American people. Making it something the Nixon Administration is desperate to keep under wraps, threatening legal action against anyone who dares publish them. So the question is; if Bradlee and his team can find a source willing to supply them with a copy, will they be able to run the story and avoid going to jail?
Once again Steven Spielberg has taken a fascinating piece of history and brought it to life. It’s a story he wanted to tell because of its parallels with the current climate of ‘fake news’. The Post is beautifully shot, the world circa 1971 has been authentically recreated. All throughout, the newsroom buzzes with the noise of clicking typewriters and the ringing of phones, although it’s a wonder we can see it given that almost everyone smoked back then. It’s an image that harks back to All the President’s Men, a movie that The Post is connected to in much the same way as Rogue One and Star Wars – A New Hope. Both feature The Washington Post taking on the Nixon Administration with Ben Bradlee leading the charge. It’s that idealistic view of journalists reporting the truth, no matter what, that we love so much.
But it’s the other side of the story that’s more interesting, that of Streep’s character, Katherine Graham. Graham was the first American female newspaper publisher. Operating in a male dominated world, she lacks confidence – an issue directly linked to her relationship with her mother – allowing others to speak for her despite fully grasping the situation and how she wants to proceed. It’s here that Streep puts her considerable abilities to good use. We know of her as a strong-willed, confident and talented woman, but as Katherine Graham she is able to suppress all of that in a performance that is not only genuine, it’s relatable – for men and women. As the movie goes on we get to see Graham grow in confidence. Her relationships with employees of the company begin to shift, especially with executives Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) and even Ben Bradlee, to the point where she is the one making the decisions.
Given they’ve never worked together before as actors, Hanks and Streep have incredible chemistry, they are a team both in and out of character. Hanks is brilliant as the gruff voiced, doggedly determined newspaper man. He gets one of the movie’s best lines when an intern questions the legality of an assignment, as Bradlee he grins and replies “What is it you think we do here for a living, kid?” Sarah Paulson also works well with Hanks as Bradlee’s wife Antoinette who supports her husband and his work, but worries about losing him to a jail cell. Bob Odenkirk is interesting to watch as Ben Bagdikian, the assistant editor on the hunt for the source of the leak, Daniel Ellsberg. Matthew Rhys is excellent as the cautious and conflicted Ellsberg, who having seen his reports on the progress of the war ignored and all of the lies, has become disillusioned with the whole situation and is just trying to do the right thing.
They say you shouldn’t get your history from movies and it is apparently true of The Post. The movie has been criticised for downplaying the role of The New York Times, the paper that first broke the story. The Times won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their coverage of the “Pentagon Papers”. But in the movie, The New York Times is shown to do very little beyond breaking the initial story. James Goodale, in house counsel for the Times in 1971 described The Post as “a good movie, but bad history.” He also said “Although a producer has artistic licence, I think it should be limited in a situation such as this, so that the public comes away with an understanding of what the true facts are in this case…And I think that if you’re doing a movie now, when [President Donald] Trump is picking on the press for ‘fake news’ you want to be authentic. You don’t want to be in any way fake.” It’s also worth noting that Manohla Dargis of The New York Times awarded the movie a NYT Critic’s Pick.
For her first produced script, Liz Hannah has struck gold. Not only has she crafted a terrific script involving an incredible piece of history, she caught the attention of one of the biggest filmmakers in Hollywood and the movie they made together has received two Oscar nominations, Best Picture and Best Actress. It may not be quite as good as All the President’s Men, but it is a very compelling story about the importance of a free press. I hope to see more movies scripted by this talented writer in the very near future.
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