A publisher finds her mettle during a fight over government secrets in Spielberg’s new historical drama, ‘The Post’

February 1, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 1, 2018

Steven Spielberg’s dozens of features are too numerous and diverse to categorize neatly. But if some hypothetical archivist were forced to sort the prolific director’s output into two boxes, she or he could do worse than to choose the labels “commercial movies” and “prestige movies.” Jaws (1975), the prototypical blockbuster, would belong in the first box; so would Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and the other Indiana Jones movies (the 1984 prequel and 1989 and 2008 sequels), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Jurassic Park (1993) and its 1997 follow-up, Minority Report and Catch Me if You Can (both 2002), War of the Worlds (2005) and other works, including the imminent Ready Player One and an upcoming Indiana Jones adventure.

Spielberg’s 2017 feature, The Post, belongs squarely with his prestige movies. It’s in good company, rubbing elbows with Empire of the Sun (1987), Schindler’s List (1993)Amistad (1997), Munich (2005 again), Lincoln (2011) and Bridge of Spies (2015). Other than the director’s very first prestige picture, The Color Purple (1985), which was adapted from Alice Walker’s phenomenal 1982 novel, all of these highbrow movies are based on true stories.

The Post reunites the director with Tom Hanks. The star of Bridge of Spies plays against Meryl Streep as the editor and publisher, respectively, of The Washington Post. Today, the newspaper is an iconic American journalism institution, and Ben Bradlee and Katharine “Kay” Graham are legendary figures. But when we meet the lead characters, in 1971, they have yet to secure their legacies.

Bradlee is an ambitious striver who yearns to make the Post as important a newspaper as the city it serves. (He became a top editor at the Post in 1965, although The Post makes it seem as if he had recently ascended to the position.) Graham, a society doyenne who inherited her role as publisher after her husband’s 1963 suicide, is still struggling to cement her control of the newspaper and its affiliates.

Her task, which would be complicated if the rampant sexism of mid-20th-century America were all she had to contend with, is made more challenging by the fact that the family-owned company is on the verge of going public. The move is needed to keep the business solvent, but the board of directors is resistant to change, especially because they believe that Kay’s father, California financier Eugene Meyer, would have wanted the family to retain full control of the paper and its assets.

Soon, Graham and Bradlee will have bigger problems than the public offering and the White House’s refusal to allow a Post reporter to attend the wedding of one of President Nixon’s daughters. The New York Times begins publishing a series of stories about a secret government study demonstrating that presidential administrations have been lying to Congress and the public for decades about the Vietnam war. The Times’s scoop triggers a frantic catch-up effort by Bradlee and his staff.

When national editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) tracks down portions of the 47-volume, 7,000-page study, the Post’s upper echelons are plunged straight into the middle of an even bigger crisis. A federal judge has enjoined the Times from publishing any more stories based on the so-called Pentagon Papers, but Bradlee is dead set on publicizing more details about the perfidy of the Kennedy, Johnson, Eisenhower and Nixon administrations.

To do so, he must persuade Graham to disregard her deep friendship with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the former defense secretary who commissioned the study. He also must convince her, against the advice of trusted lieutenants like Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts) and Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), that holding the government accountable is worth the risk of being sent to prison or shut down by Nixon and his henchmen.

Although the outcome is a given — Graham and Bradlee publish, and the Post and Times win a landmark First Amendment case before the Supreme Court — the proceedings convey a remarkable amount of drama thanks to the professionalism of the cast and crew. Spielberg is working off an excellent script by newcomer Liz Hannah and veteran writer/producer Josh Singer (TV’s beloved White House drama The West Wing, the Wikileaks movie The Fifth Estate and the award-winning journalism movie Spotlight). It doesn’t hurt that John Williams, almost certainly the greatest movie composer of all time, provides a compelling score.

The movie isn’t perfect. I was baffled by an apparent lack of exterior shots (maybe I missed them?) establishing who lived where, so that when in the third act Spielberg shows us what turns out to be the outside of Graham’s estate, I wasn’t sure whether a scene was about to take place in Bradlee’s home, Graham’s home, McNamara’s home or some previously unseen location. We get a moving late-film verbal tribute to Graham’s bravery from Bradlee’s (second) wife; unfortunately, the speech seems shoehorned in, since Tony Bradlee (Sarah Paulson) is a decidedly secondary character. And I wasn’t sure whether or not the movie was trying to convince me that Bradlee’s professionalism was compromised by his long-standing friendship with John and Jackie Kennedy.

Moreover, the film features the cliché of having a preoccupied character carelessly cross the street, forcing a car to stop short. In fact, that happens not once but twice — both times in front of the New York Times building in Manhattan. There are also some hackneyed long shots of an angry Nixon conversing with aides as ominous music plays. Shortly before the ending, the movie indulges in almost as big a cliché by having Graham tell Bradlee that “news is the first rough draft of history,” a standard-issue journalism platitude which the editor merely nods at thoughtfully.

Moments later, there’s a terrific shot of the pair walking out of the pressroom as Graham says something to the effect that she hoped to avoid anything so dramatic in the future. This is where The Post should have faded out; unfortunately, Spielberg can’t resist explaining the joke and shows us Watergate night watchman Frank Willis stumbling upon Nixon’s plumbers breaking into Democratic Party headquarters just shy of one year later.

Still, these are motes in the eye of a what on the whole is a very enjoyable historical drama. I doubt that The Post will inspire as many people to take up journalism as its effective sequel about uncovering the Watergate conspiracy, All the President’s Men, but it conveys an important message at a moment when the White House is occupied by a man at leaast as vindictive — but arguably far less principled — than Nixon.

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