Kernel Rating (out of 5): (4 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 115 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 12+. The movie focuses on the Pentagon Papers, a report that traced U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War over decades; the printing of those documents in leading newspapers in the early 1970s helped change public opinion against the war. The films opens with the Vietnam War, with gunfire, explosions, and U.S. soldiers seen missing limbs and gravely injured; people smoke cigarettes nearly constantly and drink alcohol; a subplot involves the suicide of the husband of a main character; a fair amount of casual sexism; and some cursing and rude jokes.
With ‘The Post,’ director Steven Spielberg delivers a slice of American history that feels essential right now—a defense of free speech and a portrait of the journalists who risked everything by delivering that truth to the people. This is a superbly acted, meticulously crafted film that makes clear the need for truth seekers both then and now.
By Roxana Hadadi
Steven Spielberg has in recent years been jumping between making movies specifically for young viewers (“The BFG,” the upcoming “Ready Player One”) or particularly for adults (“Bridge of Spies,” “Lincoln”), and “The Post” falls squarely in that latter category—and excellently so. This is a movie with lots of dialogue, meaningful conversations between colleagues, friends, and relatives, and weighty ethical questions that are tackled from various points of view. It’s a grown-up drama that older teens, parents, and grandparents will savor.
Similar to “Bridge of Spies,” this is another based-on-real-life film that steadily builds tension throughout, a movie about decent people trying to do their best to uphold values that should be universal but that are betrayed by institutions of power all the time. At this moment in our national experience, “The Post” feels extremely necessary and utterly crucial, a defense of free speech and the free press when both that concept and its defenders are being attacked all the time. (Particularly for viewers in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, for whom The Washington Post is our local publication, “The Post” feels even more integral to our experience as residents of the nation’s capital.)
In 1971, something extraordinary happened: The New York Times got their hands on a report titled “United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense,” a document with thousands of pages that traced U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Beginning with President Dwight D. Eisenhower and continuing through President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Pentagon Papers laid bare how the U.S. government had interfered with elections, ramped up their military presence, and essentially lied to American citizens for decades, all while leading thousands of young soldiers to their deaths. The New York Times chose to publish articles about the papers and was eventually smacked down by President Richard Nixon and his administration, who banned the Times from continuing to write about the report because it was a classified document that could, allegedly, put U.S. troops still in Vietnam at risk.
Enter The Washington Post, and particularly publisher Katherine Graham (an exceptional Meryl Streep of “Suffragette,” who nails Graham’s mannerisms and speech) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks of “Sully,” as wonderful and gritty as he’s ever been). The two have kind of a prickly, if mutually respectful, relationship, and they each occupy particular spheres of influence. Graham came into her role as publisher after her husband’s suicide, although the paper is her family’s company and she has been in the business her whole life. She’s extremely well-connected and quite wealthy, but unsure of her own expertise—and often undermined by a board made up only of men.
She is as measured as Bradlee can be explosive, with a dry wit and a passionate desire to stick it to the Nixon administration (“We can’t have an administration dictating to us our coverage,” Bradlee says of the President’s petty grudges against the paper). Bradlee wants to track down the Papers and publish them (“Let’s do our jobs!” he says emphatically to his team of editors), but the Post has just gone public, with shares available for sale at the New York Stock Exchange.
What should the priority of the Washington Post be: defending its own interests as a business or defending the First Amendment? The answer to that question involves both Graham and Bradlee, and the script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer does an excellent job laying out all the different ways that those two figures would be affected by whichever decision is made. Both had personal histories with various political figures mentioned in the Pentagon Papers, but both are ostensibly committed to the free press through their connection to the Washington Post. What is the right choice?
And that decision becomes even more complicated when you consider the constant undermining Graham received (“They want assurances she’s not going to squander it all,” snipes a board member), and the very real possibility that Nixon would go after the Post, as he did the Times, for Bradlee’s insistence on publishing. There are very real stakes here, and Spielberg ratchets up the tension, weaving his camera through the newsroom, following people running between desks and offices; allowing Hanks and Streep to square off together, the former throwing out barbs and the latter measuredly responding to them; and interspersing shots of a shadowy Nixon in the Oval Office, whispering commands against the Times and the Post. It’s an effective mixture of varying motives and possibilities.
In a certain way, “The Post” could seem like a safe movie, one that makes its enemies (like those doubtful board members and of course the paranoid, vindictive Nixon) very obvious while making its heroes particularly principled. The dichotomies are certainly quite intentional. But the performances from Streep, Hanks, and all the supporting actors—including Sarah Paulson (of “Rebel in the Rye”), Tracy Letts, Matthew Rhys, and Bob Odenkirk (of “The Spectacular Now”)—are particularly effective, and the script has some excellently rah-rah moments (“I always wanted to be part of a small rebellion,” says Odenkirk as journalist Bob Bagdikian), and the ultimate message is one that is worth supporting. “The way they lied ... those days have to be over,” Hanks says. The need to keep fighting that fight is made clear, and impactfully so, in “The Post.”
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