Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) is the owner of The Washington Post, a serviceable newspaper but not quite in league with the prestigious New York Times. The Times has just published articles using as its source the ‘Pentagon Papers’ – a series of classified reports on the history and state of the Vietnam War which has just been leaked by a government employee – and subsequently been censored by a court injunction ordered by the Nixon administration. Graham is on the verge of taking the Post public. Her raspy, strong-willed editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), sees in the Times’ restriction an opportunity to both revivify the paper’s reputation and defend the first amendment. He and his team set about finding the papers and divulging their content.
What’s most impressive about The Post is that, although it’s frequently in conversation with Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men (1976), it’s not purely a journalism procedural. It’s a character study combined with many of the best elements of the procedural. Streep is excellent as the nervous Graham, uneasy with her decisions, still dealing with the grief caused by her husband’s death, and incessantly undermined by a collection of condescending suits who seek to profit by her. Hanks does some very interesting things with Bradlee’s character. It’s a completely different portrayal of the man from Jason Robards’s performance in Pakula’s film, in which he’s inhospitable and intransigent, but for the right reasons – he knows the articles will be taken apart if they haven’t got the empirical data. In The Post, Bradlee is still tough, but warmer, funnier, more inspired and inspiring. The two incarnations are only separated by a few years.
For a picture produced at a great speed (principal photography only began in summer 2017), The Post is absurdly elegant. Critics of the 1940s would often write of films having an ‘invisible style,’ meaning that the visual sensibility of a work would not be overly striking or noticeable, but that it would, in an understated manner, reinforce the storytelling. This is precisely what the camera does in The Post.
But what a story: And what a time for it to be told. As President Trump continues his ridiculous tirade against ‘fake news,’ Spielberg argues for journalism with the proper material: the inviolability of the freedom of the press; reporting to the governed, not the governors and so forth. The Post views these essential features of the profession as inextricable with the physicality of the printing press. The final scenes linger on the type-setters’ work, the metal grooves falling into place like a necessary part of the democratic machine. This seems to have roused the right stuff in me. After the screening finished, instead of consulting the phone-app of my newspaper of choice, I read the real thing. I think I’ll do so tomorrow as well.
Film reviewed at Cineworld, Edinburgh.
Image: Entertainment One