Often histories focus on obvious events—wars, elections, and the like—but to me the more interesting challenge is tracing those times when belief systems, and the basic assumptions behind them, are irreparably shattered. One example in recent memory was the revelation of the extent of child abuse taking place in the Catholic Church, and the lengths to which those in authority went to shelter the abusers rather than to aid the victims. The role played by the Boston Globe in uncovering that scandal was the subject of Tom McCarthy’s Oscar-winning Spotlight, a celebration of the power of old-fashioned investigative reporting. Another such moment was the revelation of the paranoia of the Nixon White House, and the illegal activities carried out on its behalf, in what became known as the Watergate scandal. That episode in history was also immortalized in film, thanks to Alan J. Pakula 1976 masterful All the President’s Men, which set the standard for fact-based political thrillers.
The publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 led to a similar change in basic assumptions, as their content proved that the American government and its advisors knew for years that the Vietnam War was not winnable, yet persisted in drafting and sending Americans to die there (to say nothing of the destruction wrought upon the Vietnamese people and those in neighboring countries). When you are presented with undeniable evidence that elected officials at the highest level lied in their teeth for years, often for no better reason than to save face, it does incline you to question everything that comes out of the mouth of anyone in power. The publication of the Papers is part of the subject of Steven Spielberg’s The Post, but it’s mixed up with the drama involving the paper’s IPO (tell me your eyes didn’t just glaze over) and often feels like mere backdrop for a more personal story in which the central players are Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), publisher of the Washington Post, and Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the paper’s executive editor.
It may not be fair to compare The Post to All the President’s Men, but Spielberg himself invites that comparison with an unnecessary coda suggesting that he may be planning to remake Pakula’s film. Spielberg makes some effort to provide political context in The Post, with sequences portraying the Vietnam War, street protests, and the like, but they come off like better-looking versions of clips from the kind of documentaries that put you to sleep in high school. These sequences feel both dutiful and tacked on, as if Spielberg added them after someone pointed out that the movie would be more interesting to audiences if he bothered to establish the historical context for the personal story which is obviously his main interest. He also includes a lot of what might be called hot-type porn, punching the nostalgia buttons of audience members who remember the days when reporters wrote their stories on manual typewriters, editors wrote corrections on hard copy, and the paper was printed from blocks of metal type composed by linotype operators. The Post revels in the sight of the papers rolling off the presses, as if the very physicality of the process can prove that this was once a time when newspapers mattered, and that their importance was inextricably linked to the fact that in those days people got their news from tangible objects made of wood pulp and ink.
The best parts of The Post portray the relationship between Graham and Bradlee. Streep is particularly good as the embodiment of a woman who never expected to be running a newspaper (she was thrust into that role following the suicide of her husband) but who rose to the occasion and took the paper from a local publication of indifferent quality to a newspaper of international importance. Both Graham and Bradlee were to the manor born, and many scenes in The Post underline both their economic privilege and the chummy nature of the relationships of the power players in journalism and in government. To take one example, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) is a regular guest at the Graham household, and at one point Bradlee questions Graham on whether she is trying to protect McNamara (secretary of defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson) from being discredited by information contained in the Pentagon Papers. She’s more than up to his challenge, however, and reminding him of his chummy relationships with, among others, JFK, and questioning how he could have remained part of those social circles had he not pulled a few punches in his reporting along the way.
The Post offers many pleasures, including an expert reconstruction of the early 1970s, although Spielberg’s choice to shoot the exteriors in light that suggests a rainstorm has just concluded is distracting. There are also a number of fine actors in small roles, including Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, and Carrie Coon—in fact you may need a cheat sheet to keep track of who’s who. The script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer also has its moments, with one of my favorites illustrating the now familiar trope of “that’s a fine suggestion, Mrs. Graham—perhaps now one of the men in the room would like to make it.” Streep’s performance alone is worth the price of a ticket, even if the film as a whole is disappointing—not terrible, but not great either, with a determined focus on the personal that feels oddly out of sync with the momentous political event events relegated to the background. | Sarah Boslaugh