Steven Spielberg makes movies like they used to make them -- big-hearted star-driven machines that are equal parts entertainment and instruction. Movies that aren't shy about their intentions to uplift and/or outrage. Movies that mean to stir us in the present moment with the fictional or historic examples they present.
And sometimes what we need is a good old-fashioned Hollywood movie.
89 Cast: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Bob Odenkirk, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, Jessie Mueller, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Carrie Coon, Zach Woods
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rating: PG-13, for language and brief war violence
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
In The Post, Spielberg's nostalgic valentine to newspapering, Tom Hanks plays Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee as a charismatic swashbuckler, and Meryl Streep plays Post owner Katherine Graham as a conflicted iron lady balancing public and private obligations.
And while both do excellent work -- Hanks manages to catch the Boston patrician lurking beneath Bradlee's somewhat mannered crustiness and Streep effectively conveys the learning curve that informs Graham's growth from sponsor to champion -- both actors remain wholly visible, retaining their recognizable movie-star brands instead of sinking into their unambiguously heroic characters a la Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour or Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.
And this seems intentional, as if Hanks and Streep want to make it clear that they are co-signing Spielberg's message about the importance of a free and vigorous press to a free society. While The Post is ostensibly a docudrama about the Washington Post's role in publishing the Pentagon Papers, it's less an exercise in nostalgia than a vital warning for the present "fake news" moment. Which means some people will over-praise it while partisans of the current administration will no doubt perceive it as liberal Hollywood twaddle.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle; it's good but not great Spielberg. Lots of people will get caught up in the detective story. Hanks and Streep are fascinating, and Spielberg knows how to pace a film (this one only has three endings and clocks in at under two hours) and he attracts top-notch talent. The Post is a seamlessly sleek work -- with only Hanks-as-Bradlee's hair providing the slightest drag.
But I was able to get past that. And I'd met Bradlee.
And I knew Howard Simons, who once offered me a job at the Homer, Alaska, newspaper he co-owned. He's a minor character in this film, played by David Cross, who has barely a line or two. But it's a measure of the pains taken that Cross has Simons' ingratiating grin and enthusiastic head bob down -- I knew immediately who the character was supposed to be before the character's name was mentioned (if it ever was). Spielberg's historic films are not always necessarily accurate -- things are fiddled for dramatic purposes -- but they are remarkably well-researched.
Younger readers may need to know that the Pentagon Papers were a massive secret study of the war in Vietnam commissioned by Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), secretary of defense under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson that largely exposed the duplicity of those Democratic administrations (and to a lesser extent that of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower) in regard to what they had secretly decided was the unwinnable war in Vietnam. McNamara, a close friend of Graham's, came to this conclusion as early as 1965, but for political reasons the Johnson (and Nixon) administrations offered the American public the illusion that the war was not only winnable but being won.
The movie begins in Vietnam, with Daniel Ellsberg (The Americans' Matthew Rhys), a researcher at the Rand Corporation, a Department of Defense contractor, observing the progress of the war. Later, he listens as McNamara privately bemoans the hopelessness of the fight -- then publicly cheerleads for American involvement.
A couple of years later in 1971, Ellsberg has access to more than 7,000 pages of classified documents that detail how the U.S. government had for decades been lying to the American people. Conscious struck, he smuggles them out of the Pentagon and leaks them to the New York Times' Neil Sheehan.
At the Post, this is first received as a body blow -- Bradlee and his staff are struggling to raise the national profile of the newspaper, widely perceived as a provincial second-string publication, and getting scooped by the Times doesn't help.
But an opportunity arises when the Nixon administration successfully convinces a judge to enjoin the Times from publishing, giving the Post its shot. After assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk, fantastic in the role) tracks Ellsberg down and secures some 4,000 pages of documents, the Post can publish its own stories based on them -- if Graham and Bradlee are willing to risk going to prison.
Further complicating the matter is that Graham is preparing to take her family newspaper public, and much depends on the share price. Legal problems could depress it and end up costing reporting jobs.
The Post lacks the mythic poetry of Lincoln (or 2015's Spotlight, also co-written by Josh Singer, who wrote this script with Liz Hannah), or the freightedness of Munich,and it won't wear as well as Spielberg's absolute best work, but it's supremely entertaining and well-realized. It's bound to be one of the big players this awards season, and will probably pull in more than $100 million at the box office.
MovieStyle on 01/12/2018
Print Headline: Good news: Steven Spielberg’s The Post a reminder of journalism’s importance