Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in The Post (Photo: Fox)
***1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Steven Spielberg
STARS Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks
In these turbulent and trying times, a timid and largely ineffectual media is par for the course, feigning acts of hard-hitting journalism when maintaining some measure of the status quo is what’s really taking place. (Latest of many cases in point: Even with that offensive “shithole” comment added to countless other affronts, the major mainstream outlets still refuse to directly call that Cretin-in-Chief Trump a racist, couching his vileness in less threatening terms like “racially tinged” and “controversial.”) Three cheers, then, for Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which not only recalls a more honest, more efficient and more courageous period for the American newspaper but also serves as a throwing down of the gauntlet for the modern counterpart.
The Post may not match the brilliance of 1976’s All the President’s Men, but it still serves as a potent reminder of the potential power of the press. As with that look at the Watergate scandal and the toppling of a U.S. president, this one also involves the Washington Post and editor Ben Bradlee. Jason Robards won an Oscar for portraying Bradlee in All the President’s Men; Tom Hanks probably won’t enjoy comparable awards glory, but he’s nevertheless excellent in the role, seen ordering his troops to find out what bombshell the New York Times plans to explode on its cover in June 1971. It turns out to be some of the pages of the Pentagon Papers, leaked by analyst and activist Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) to alert the nation to the lies spun by several administrations in regard to the Vietnam War. Once the Nixon White House manages to obtain a temporary court injunction against the Times, preventing it from publishing any more pages, Bradlee sees this as the Post’s opportunity to pick up the baton. But to do so, he needs the approval and authorization of Post publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), already in the spotlight as the sole female boss of a major American newspaper.
Armed with a stellar screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, Spielberg responds by serving up his best picture in 15 years. Clearly energized by the urgency and import of the piece, the director has fashioned an engrossing film that functions as both a historical record (with the usual allowances for Hollywood embellishments, of course) and a cautionary tale. He’s backed in his zeal by a note-perfect cast — Streep and Hanks, of course, but also a supporting line-up that runs especially deep. Particularly of note are Tracy Letts (also terrific in Lady Bird) as Fritz Beebe, Graham’s sensible friend and advisor, Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who became Ellsberg’s Post liaison, and Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense who’s seen as both combative and morally compromised.
In an awards season in which most of the players are either cutting-edge endeavors or indie darlings, The Post seems comparatively old-fashioned in its content and in its execution. That’s hardly a criticism, though. Blessed with veterans on both sides of the camera, here’s a classically trained piece that manages to be both robust and rousing.