“The Post” is kind of like the Yankees of movies. A Steven Spielberg-directed film about the Pentagon Papers starring Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep and a murderer’s row of your favorite TV character actors (Jesse Plemons! Bob Odenkirk! Carrie Coon! Sarah Paulson!)? Is there any way it wouldn’t be great or at least very good?
That Spielberg shot and is releasing it in under a year was perhaps the only potential handicap. Would it feel rushed? Unfinished? The astonishing thing is that while there are a few clunkers, on the whole “The Post” is meat and potatoes Spielberg in the best possible way.
The script from first time screenwriter Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, who also wrote the investigative journalism drama “Spotlight,” focuses on the Washington Post executives who risked everything when they decided to publish the Pentagon Papers, classified Department of Defense documents that chronicled the secrets and lies behind the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
Streep plays Katharine Graham, the new publisher of the Post, who is taking her family’s paper public in an effort to save it. Hanks is editor Ben Bradlee, who is trying to elevate it from hometown rag to national necessity on par with the New York Times.
As we meet them, their most pressing problem is that they’ve been banned from covering Tricia Nixon’s wedding. Then the Times comes out with its first story about the damning documents.
The film opens with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) in Vietnam, and the moment he decides that he can’t handle the lies of Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who in private says that things are devolving in the war, but then boasts to the press that things are improving.
Ellsberg steals the report that he helped to write and starts the long, tedious process of copying them (Spielberg is able to make even a copy machine seem thrilling). Indeed, while “The Post” is not much more than people talking, Spielberg infuses every scene with tension and life and the grandeur of the ordinary.
Ellsberg leaks the documents to the Times, which publishes stories until a federal judge issues an injunction that forces them to stop, setting the stage for the Post to pick up the story.
While there is an interesting tick tock of will-they-won’t-they publish the papers, at the heart of the story is Graham, an obviously smart and capable woman who is full of doubt, and is doubted by nearly everyone around her. Her father had given the paper to her husband and when he committed suicide, she took control. Streep plays her with daring reserve, as she finds herself unable to speak in key meetings, or stand up for herself as her board of directors is disrespecting her in earshot.
Hanks, meanwhile is having a ball as Bradlee, a charming and crass cad with a mission and an army of capable reporters trying to get the story. Bradlee and Graham clash, but there is a foundation of respect there too, and it is a joy to watch Hanks and Streep share the screen.
Hannah and Singer’s script delves into compelling topics including the casual sexism of the time, and the often too close relationships between D.C. journalists and the subjects they’re supposed to cover. That we get to see Streep and Hanks delivering the lines is almost just an added bonus.
Rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence.