Fighting to Go to Press: 'The Post' Review
For reasons best known to them, and generally with good cause, every president has told at least a few lies to their citizens. During one period in the Vietnam War, leaders ramped up the efforts to battle the North Vietnamese, knowing what would happen and knowing the protests against the war were growing. Someone with inside knowledge about the situation decided the public had a right to know, even though the information remained classified when they leaked it. The movie The Post starts in 1966, when Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a State Department analyst on assignment in South Vietnam to report on the war effort, sees a problem with the increased presence there. Even Secretary Of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) privately concedes the report submitted by Ellsberg is accurate. Publicly, though, McNamara boasts of success. Five years later, Ellsberg, now employed as a private contractor, leaks the information he knows to the New York Times. The key information he provides shows that five consecutive presidents, starting with Harry Truman, knew a conflict in Vietnam could not be won.
Before the paper can publish all of Ellsberg's findings, the White House gets an injunction that halts the publication of more. An expedited Supreme Court hearing awaits. In Washington, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the owner of the Washington Post, has put shares of her paper on the stock market in an effort to make the paper more economically stable. She has men involved with the Post advising her, and sometimes going against her. Her editor-in-chief, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), would like for the paper to have the same kind of newsbreaking ability the Times enjoys. While the Times awaits a hearing, Bradlee has reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) look for the source of the information the Times ran. He gets in touch with Ellsberg, meets him, and gets his own copy of the documents Ellsberg leaked. All the men around her have an opinion about running this information in the Post. Graham has to decide about the risk to both the paper and to its new shareholders while her top reporters sort through the documents Bagdikian obtained.
The Post is based on the real-life fight to publish the documents that have come to be called the Pentagon Papers. The topic of government secrecy has been a theme of many a Steven Spielberg movie, especially in films like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and E. T.. Ellsberg and McNamara are just two people who know the truth about the war effort. Ellsberg made sure the media got evidence about the secret. The Nixon administration was furious about the effort, but the press saw it for the big news it was. The script comes from newcomer Liz Hannah, with help from Josh Singer, who co-authored the script of the Oscar-winning Best Picture, Spotlight. Both films deal, in different ways, with the press uncovering unsettling truths, and the silence and complicity that accompanied the facts. Spielberg shows he still make a film where the conflict grows to a climax as Graham faces calls from many people. It's a fascinating look at history, and serves as a reminder that people do not necessarily learn from the issues of the past.
The ensemble Spielberg assembled delivers in fine fashion, with Streep, Hanks, and Odenkirk leading the way. Streep, as Graham, has been surrounded by a chorus of male voices trying to influence her. Here, Streep shows the strength and conviction of her beliefs, proving to all she's not just a widow who inherited a newspaper. It's not a final decision doesn't come with great conflict. Besides the legal issues she may face, she's also good friends with McNamara, now out of the White House but unhappy with his coverage by the paper. She even reaches out to Times editor A. M. Rosenthal (Michael Stuhlbarg) about her situation. Hanks is persistent as Bradlee, who wants the paper to be a journalistic leader, and a place where the best reporters want to work. He wants the story to run, even though their own legal department has reservations. Odenkirk keeps a stern look as Bagdikian, a man who knows he can't use office phones to reach Ellsberg. His work takes him to pay phones and airplanes as he works to secure the documents for his employer. Besides those already listed, the cast includes Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, and Jesse Plemons. That's the actual voice of Richard Nixon, venting his anger as tapes roll.
The Post shows that the battle between Freedom Of The Press and Executive Privilege never ends. At one point, a White House lawyer asks the paper's counsel if the paper would have published the invasion plan for D-Day if someone had leaked it. The movie clearly shows that comparison inaccurate, as objectives were different. A paper owner must make the best decision on both a business and a personal level, even though she might cause damage on both fronts. A war that lasted longer that US involvement in both World Wars cost many Americans their lives, and the movie shows how much the truth hurt.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give The Post four stars. A pressing issue.