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Steven Spielberg’s The Post makes an entertaining, timely case for freedom of the press

(Source: www.vox.com)

It took about nine months for Steven Spielberg to make The Post, from the moment he read the first draft of the script in the early months of 2017 to the first advance screenings in November. That’s an absurdly short period of time for any movie to be made, let alone one of this size.

That sense of urgency serves the film well. The Post is a humdinger of a historical journalism tale that manages to be about many things — women and power, competition, friendship, and most of all the First Amendment — while also being a rollicking, enjoyable time at the movies. (Following the first New York screening, star Tom Hanks called it “rock-’em-sock-’em two hours of grab-yer-ass entertainment,” and he wasn’t wrong.)

Rating

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The pace of the film, and the sheer number of thematic and plot-related plates it keeps spinning, helps smooth out The Post’s roughest edge: It’s so strenuously sincere about making sure you know it’s relevant to today that it verges, at times, on overbearing.

But it always seems to pull back at the right time, so don’t let the movie’s earnestness put you off. If Hollywood is going to make “now more than ever” movies, this is the way to do it: with a marvelous cast, pitch-perfect design, and a story that feels like the work of latter-day Frank Capra. The Post is an act of goodwill and faith in American institutions, but it’s also aware of how fragile those institutions are, how dependent on their participants they are for their survival, and how much is at stake when press freedom is threatened.

The Post is a limpid and exciting retelling of the story of the Pentagon Papers

The Post starts on the battlefields of Vietnam, where Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), working for the State Department, sees things that make him start to question American involvement in Vietnam. His belief that the US government isn’t handling the war well is only heightened when he contributes to what would later be called the Pentagon Papers, a study of classified documents commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). Knowing that the papers contain explosive revelations, including secrets regarding the winnability of the war that were kept from the American people, Ellsberg eventually copied them and worked to get them into the hands of the New York Times.

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Kay Graham in The Post

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Kay Graham in The Post

But The Post isn’t a story about the Times — at least, not directly. It’s about the Washington Post, which at the time was still considered a more local paper, with a much smaller staff and less prestige than the New York Times. Publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) is trying to get the paper, which is struggling financially, ready for an IPO, and her board is skeptical — not just because they politely brush off her ability to lead because she’s a woman, but also because they’re not so sure that the editor she’s brought in, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), isn’t going to run the paper into the ground.

Everything starts to change when an anonymous source delivers a shoebox containing some of the Pentagon Papers to the offices, which the New York Times has been blocked from publishing by an injunction from the court. Nixon, the Post editors and reporters believe, is trying to not just block information that would be harmful to his presidency but actively undercut the freedom of the press guaranteed in the First Amendment.

Bradlee, angry about the ways the Nixon administration has been aggressively blocking his paper from covering it, is spoiling for a fight, and once reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) gets his hands on all the documents, the race is on. A bevy of journalists hole up at Bradlee’s to sort through all the information, while a couple of lawyers recommend against publishing the information, arguing that it poses a risk to the paper. The board chair Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts) is inclined to agree, especially with the paper trying to go public.

But Graham, for whom the paper is something much more important than mere business, is torn. And whether the papers go public is her call to make.

Despite — or because of — its historical subject matter, The Post feels like a thoroughly 2017-centric movie

With Spielberg helming such a cast (which also includes Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods, Michael Stuhlbarg, and others I’ve doubtless missed), The Post seems on paper like an obvious slam-dunk. Spielberg brought in some of his frequent collaborators — composer John Williams, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski — and legends like costume designer Ann Roth to make the whole thing hum along like a well-oiled printing press. It’s also somehow the first time Streep and Hanks have worked together onscreen, and it’s a stirring, true story of ordinary American heroes speaking truth to power — something everyone seems to love, Hollywood and moviegoers alike.

But you can have all these things and still turn out a bad movie. That’s because the hardest part of making a film like The Post isn’t making it in nine months; it’s figuring out where the story’s center of gravity lies. Luckily, first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah and Spotlight screenwriter Josh Singer have located the film’s nerve center in two overlapping areas: an examination of the relationship between the press and the executive branch of government, and a larger story about women in American workplaces.

While The Post is technically a historical story — evoking relatively recent events and the repercussions that still have a bearing on journalism and politics today — it’s not just a story about the past. It feels like a thoroughly 2017-centric movie, and there are places where it’s clear the threads most relevant to America under Donald Trump have been enhanced a bit so we don’t miss them.

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in The Post

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in The Post

At the end of the first year of a Trump presidency, there may only be one thing Americans can agree on: that “the media,” whatever we mean by that, is under siege from the White House. What you believe about the causes, effects, and constitutionality of that siege is largely related to whom you believe and how much you understand about the way media works, but there’s no doubt that this has been a difficult year for journalism in America.

The Post could have worked as simply a triumphant two-hour advertisement about How Journalism Is Good, and it certainly demonstrates the power and thought that goes into good reporting. But the movie sidesteps becoming a straightforward valorization of Bradlee and Graham by letting us watch them slowly figure out that they have, in the past, become far too cozy with power. Graham is close friends with McNamara and LBJ; Bradlee was a buddy of JFK. In several carefully drawn scenes, both come to realize that their judgment in the past was likely colored by the personal relationships they developed to have access to those in power, and how they were likely manipulated in the process.

It’s a biting reminder of the trouble with cozying up to subjects or sources, and, maybe more importantly, of how journalists with good intentions and the goal of holding the feet of those in power to the fire can be manipulated. “The way they lied,” Bradlee says. “Those days have to be over. We have to be the check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable — my god, who will?”

The Post’s clearest central theme is the danger to Americans if the executive branch of doesn’t respect the freedom of the press encoded in the First Amendment. On real tapes of Nixon’s phone calls (though we only glimpse him on the phone from the back through a window), we hear the president call the New York Times “our enemies” and talk about prosecuting them and their sources. Bradlee reminds people over and over again that the White House doesn’t get to dictate their coverage, whether it concerns Tricia Nixon’s wedding or the misdeeds of the president.

In a TV interview, Ellsberg suggests that making an equivalence between information that’s damaging to a particular administration and treason is “very close to saying, ‘I am the State,’” quoting Louis XIV’s declaration of absolute power. The meaning in 2017 is clear: A leader who calls the press the enemy when he doesn’t like how it reports on him is subverting the Constitution itself — and as the Supreme Court ruling covered in The Post says, “the press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

So while The Post certainly wants to defend the institution of journalism, it’s also intent on showing that it’s an institution run by humans, with the flaws and virtues of all humans. “We don’t always get it right. We’re not always perfect,” Graham says to Bradlee near the end of the film. “But I think if we can just keep on it, you know? That’s the job, isn’t it?” It’s like she’s peering out of the screen at us today.

The Post is also the story of Kay Graham, a woman who comes into her own

There’s another theme running through The Post that’s just as relevant to 2017, and it feels especially fresh in the context of a movie about journalism. Graham was the country’s first female newspaper publisher, who took over the Post after her husband, to whom her father had left the company, killed himself, and it’s clear from the start of The Post that she’s accustomed to being gently ignored by the board, even though she’s wealthy, powerful, and technically the one calling the shots.

In a meeting, someone asks how many reporters a $3 million cut represents. “Twenty-five,” she replies, while the men around her speak over her. “A dozen?” Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) muses while Graham falls silent and smiles, waiting for Beebe to repeat her words so the others will listen.

It’s a familiar moment for most women who’ve sat in boardrooms or meetings — being interrupted, having someone else repeat your ideas — and though Graham is in charge, and people have to respect her, the sexism still comes through. Parsons says the bankers are “skittish about having a woman in charge,” explaining to some others that “Kay throws a great party, but her father gave the paper to her husband.”

The Post is Kay Graham’s story, and following a screening in New York, Spielberg explained that her centrality existed even in Hannah’s first draft of the screenplay. Graham is never withdrawn or unassuming; she can command a room. But she’s been used to conceding the floor. Over the course of the events, Graham grows more assertive; by the time she’s leaving the Supreme Court, the movie makes it clear that she’s become a pioneer for young women looking up to her.

Meryl Streep in The Post

Meryl Streep in The Post

For my money, the more exciting articulation of this theme comes in a brief but key monologue delivered by Bradlee’s wife Tony (played by Paulson), who reminds him that he isn’t the brave one for going ahead with the story and flying in Nixon’s face. “We both know this will do nothing but burnish your reputation,” she says. “And as for your job, you can always find another one.”

When he protests, she continues: “Kay is in a position she never thought she’d be in — a position I’m sure plenty of people don’t think she should have. And when you’re told time and time again that you’re not good enough, that your opinion doesn’t matter as much — when they don’t just look past you, when to them you’re not even there, when that’s been your reality for so long — it’s hard not to let yourself think it’s true.”

“So to make this decision, to risk her fortune and the company that’s been her entire life? Well, I think that’s brave,” she concludes. And Bradlee seems to realize she’s right. That this scene serves as a potent reminder of the workplace dynamics many women experience all these years later is troubling, but it’s also fitting for a year that has been defined by women who’ve had enough of tilted power dynamics that enable everything from cordial misogyny to sexual predation.

And on a broader scale, Graham’s character progression throughout the film is a cipher for confronting twisted, broken authority in many arenas — including, of course, scaring up the bravery to confront power-hungry leaders who want to turn the world against you.

The end of The Post is typical of Spielberg — don’t worry, I won’t spoil it — and some people will consider it too coy, or too neat. I found myself liking it for those very qualities, and for how it sets the whole story in its greater historical context. It’s meant to demonstrate that hitting one domino hard enough in the quest to uncover the truth can have big consequences for the whole country. A good press serves the governed, not the governors. The Post reminds us how worthwhile, and sometimes messy, that service is.

The Post opens in limited theaters on December 22 and wide on January 18.

More Info: www.vox.com

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