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'The Post' is least successful when it’s glorying in its own righteousness

If the movie has any shelf life beyond the current historical moment, it will likely be because of Meryl Streep’s performance as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep star in 'The Post.'
Niko Tavernise/20th Century Fox/AP
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( PG-13 )
  • Peter Rainer
    Film critic

Most movies coming out of Hollywood this year have been determinedly apolitical. Not so with Steven Spielberg’s “The Post.” Ostensibly it’s about The Washington Post and its battles with the Nixon White House, and alongside with The New York Times, over the right to publish the Pentagon Papers. But clearly this freedom-of-the-press clarion call is also intended to resonate in the Trump era. Spielberg, who rushed the film into production, has stated, “I could not believe the similarities between today and what happened with the Nixon administration against their avowed enemies The New York Times and The Washington Post. I realized this was the only year to make this film.”

As is true of most movies about “important” topics, “The Post” is least successful when it’s glorying in its own righteousness. If the movie has any shelf life beyond the current historical moment, I suspect it will be because of Meryl Streep’s performance as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. Her genius for emotional nuance continually undercuts the movie’s grandstanding.

When “The Post” begins, Graham is arranging for the family-owned paper, which was passed along to her in 1963 after her husband committed suicide, to go public in order to avoid bankruptcy. Executive editor Ben Bradlee, portrayed by Tom Hanks with enough gruff charisma to make us (almost) forget Jason Robards in “All the President’s Men,” is chafing at the White House’s decision to bar his reporters from covering Tricia Nixon’s wedding. He wants to lift the paper out of its regional rut and go up against the Times with something big.

This turns out to be the Pentagon Papers, the voluminous secret documents – leaked in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg first to the Times, and then, when a court injunction halted publication, to the Post – outlining three decades of lies and coverups employed by four presidents to justify the American involvement in Vietnam, a war that many, including former secretary of Defense and Graham’s good friend Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), privately thought unwinnable. 

The film proceeds on parallel, often intersecting tracks as both an old-
fashioned newspaper movie, full of scoops and skulduggery, and a movie about a society matron with no real business experience, who, as the first female publisher of a major newspaper, finds herself at the forefront of a major test of the First Amendment before the Supreme Court. Disparaged or ignored even by her own top business associates – all men – she finds her voice and, as Streep has described it in interviews, quoting Nora Ephron, becomes “the heroine of [her] life.” In the movie’s terms, Graham finding her own voice is tantamount to the United States finding its own voice.

If all this sounds pat, that’s because Spielberg and his writers, Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (who co-wrote “Spotlight”), have made it so. The newspaper’s machinations are presented with dogged diligence. When Graham, conquering her fear of causing the paper to collapse and facing possible jail time, gives the go-ahead to publish the Pentagon Papers, you can practically hear the newsroom cry out, “Start the presses!” 

We’ve seen enough better-than-decent newspaper dramas by now, most recently “Spotlight,” to expect a bit more from Spielberg. As is often true with him when he tackles a historical subject – think “Bridge of Spies” or “Lincoln” – he tamps down his cinematic flair in the service of what he clearly perceives as a higher calling. 

In the case of “The Post,” that calling is nothing less than championing a free press in Trump World. The film is saying that there is nothing fake about the news in the Post – then or now. And the fact that “The Post” is essentially a prequel to “All the President’s Men” is likewise intended as a cautionary warning shot to the Trump administration.

You can sympathize, as I certainly do, with the sentiments behind this free press posture and still resist the movie’s self-
congratulatory tone. In the film’s closing minutes, do we really need to see a gaggle of women gazing adoringly at a victorious Graham as she descends the steps of the Supreme Court?  

As a matter of fairness, one could also argue that the film’s heavily skewed emphasis on those unlikely soul mates, Graham and Bradlee, undervalues the primary role that the reporters, not to mention Ellsberg, played in the battle. Their courageous work made her courageous decision possible. 

But there is no arguing with Streep’s performance. In inexorable increments, she transforms what might have been just another feminist standard-bearer into something far more complex. Her hesitations, rue, and ultimate valor are soul-deep. Graham’s victory over her fears does not come lightly, but when it does, it’s definitive. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence.)

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