The US government lied to its people for over twenty years regarding their involvement in the Vietnam War. Why were they there? Was there any hope of victory? To the American people, maybe. Certainly all the mothers and wives who sent their beloveds off to battle would’ve thought so. But a handful of politicians knew otherwise; it was a lost cause. Word eventually got out. The White House was implicated. The Post, the thoroughly gripping new film by Steven Spielberg, examines the reporters who broke the story and cornered the president of the United States into resignation.
Like Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 drama, All the President’s Men (a spiritual sequel that covered the ensuing Watergate Scandal), The Post is told through the eyes of The Washington Post, owned by Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) as an indirect heirloom handed down from her father to her husband and then to her.
The film starts with Katharine practicing a sales pitch to the banks, as the company threatens to go under and must be made public. She feels, of course, that the Post is hers to honour, not just for her sake but for the sake of her family. And so the sale must be made. But exposing the presidency is not exactly a recipe for stability.
The Post has a lot going on. We are invited to Katharine’s tumultuous dinner table. We are dropped into the newsroom of The Washington Post, where executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is desperate to break the story (dubbed the “Pentagon Papers”) despite the injunction filed on the press by the supreme court. We have to deal with financial legalities and a lot of investment talk. And all of this mayhem is choreographed by Spielberg with the precision and experience of a maestro.
It doesn’t stop there. There are collusions and secrets. Underhanded exchanges and private phone calls. There’s even time for Ben’s daughter to make a small fortune selling lemonade. And yet the through line is abundantly clear. The Post aims at once to both tell us what the American presidency is capable of to protect its reputation, and how history is doomed to repeat itself.
Anyone watching The Post who is kept abreast of the current political narrative will surely see the parallels between Nixon’s and Trump’s administrations. Both rule with an iron fist. Both refuse to lose. Both are willing to quash opposition at the expense of their country’s constitution. And more to the point, both think of the press as the enemy.
Such conflict usually gives rise to outstanding characters (Woodward and Bernstein spring to mind), and The Post is graced with Katharine and Ben, fattened out by Streep and Hanks as only the two of them can. Together they attempt to salvage The Washington Post, uphold the first amendment and freedom of the press, and bring a corrupt government to its knees. And might they also want to one-up The New York Times, their most bitter competitor?
Spielberg makes three kinds of pictures: the box office-smashing blockbuster (Jaws, Jurassic Park), the goofy kids movie (Hook, The BFG) and the thoughtful historical drama (The Color Purple, Lincoln). The Post is a fine addition to the third group. It’s fascinating and bold, and if it dips into a kind of melodramatic tribute towards the end, it’s most likely because Spielberg laments the bygone days when newsrooms were frenetic, reporters were dogged and newspapers were downright fashionable.