Movie Review – The Post
The National Board of Review was first out the gate and bestowed this film with three awards. It won Best Film, Best Actor and Best Actress. It’s nominated for eight Critics Choice Awards, as well as six Golden Globe Awards, including Best Motion Picture, Best Director, Best Performance by an Actor and Best Performance by an Actress for Meryl Streep. This is Streep’s 31st Golden Globe nomination. She was bestowed at the last Golden Globes with the Cecil B. DeMille Award. During her speech, she never said his name but it was highly assumed that she was being critical of the then President-elect Donald Trump. Her next project is this movie, which is highly critical of President Richard Nixon. The obvious conclusion people can and maybe should make is that she did this film as an indictment on the Trump administration through the reflections of the indictments on the Nixon administration. People who support Trump or have grown tired of the endless politicizing probably won’t like those aspersions. However, there is another reading of this film that simply isn’t about bashing Trump.
Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer who won the Oscar for penning Spotlight, this movie starts with the Vietnam War, 1966. It follows Daniel Ellsberg, played by Matthew Rhys (The Americans and Brothers & Sisters), an employee of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit organization that was contracted by the U.S. government for strategic analysis. Daniel is seen observing and then writing about the war. At first, one might assume him to be a news reporter but no. He’s there to offer advice and ultimately help with a commissioned report by the Secretary of Defense. Based on what he’s witnessed first-hand, which is the war not going well, Daniel knows the government officials are lying when they go in front of the news media and proclaim the war is going well. When Daniel finally looks at the commissioned report, he learns that it’s more than just a few white lies to the press. He learns there’s a deeper cover-up and huge misdeeds that betray the American public’s trust.
Meryl Streep stars as Katherine Graham, aka Kay, the owner and publisher of The Washington Post newspaper in 1971. She inherits the paper when her husband dies. It was originally her father’s paper, but her father gave control of it to his son-in-law. When she now finds it in her lap, she’s overwhelmed. She still concerns herself with typical duties of a woman of her age in that time, traditional housewife duties and that of a DC socialite, but she also does her homework, reading and preparing herself for the business of running a newspaper. She does become very well-versed and even more so than her male counterparts. Yet, because it is a male-dominated business world, she feels initially nervous to speak up and assert herself. She doesn’t have a voice in many ways at the beginning and this film is about whether or not she’ll get her voice and make a decision on her own.
Tom Hanks co-stars as Ben Bradlee, the executive editor at The Washington Post. He pretty much runs the newsroom. He’s in charge of assigning and overseeing the stories that go into the paper. He catches wind of the story about Daniel Ellsberg who first leaks the commissioned report, also known as the “Pentagon Papers,” to The New York Times. Once Ben realizes they’ve been scooped, he goes on a dogged pursuit to follow this story too, and his pursuit clashes with Kay.
The first clashes are on ethical levels. Because Kay is a wealthy DC socialite who knows a lot of people, she happens to be friends with Robert McNamara, played by Bruce Greenwood. McNamara was the Secretary of Defense who commissioned the Pentagon Papers. McNamara was also the Secretary of Defense under President John F. Kennedy before resigning in 1968. It’s funny because Greenwood played Kennedy in the film Thirteen Days (2000). Ben doesn’t know about Daniel Ellsberg at first but he does know that McNamara must be behind the Pentagon Papers, so he wants Kay to get McNamara to be his source about the Pentagon Papers. This raises interesting ethical questions about the relationship between journalists or those who work for the news media and their sources. Can someone in the news media be friends with a source or the subject of their story? Kay and Ben clash over it.
These clashes keep going back and forth until it goes from interesting ethical questions to actual legal dangers. Ben’s pursuit of this story eventually puts not just himself but also Kay into the position that if they go forward, she could go to jail. The movie builds to this really compelling dilemma and hinges on what Kay will decide to do, or if she can even decide at all, giving all the male-dominated influences and pressures surrounding her. Streep and Hanks handle it all so superbly and truly give master classes in acting so effortlessly. They’re aided by director Steven Spielberg who wields the camera so effortlessly. His camera glides in and out of rooms, the newsroom, as well as the residences of both Kay and Ben, sometimes going handheld, making strategic tilts and zooms to make us feel the immediacy and urgency of the situation. It truly is a well-crafted and brilliant film with soul to boot.
However, the main issue is that of leaked documents from arguably a government whistle-blower, that whistle-blower being Daniel Ellsberg. Yes, all of this goes down under the Nixon administration, but for those who think there is a straight line from this to the Trump administration might be wishfully thinking. Who is the Ellsberg of the Trump administration? James Comey! Some have compared Trump’s firing of Comey to that of Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” but the corollary isn’t exactly the same for the purposes of this movie.
The “Saturday Night Massacre” was in the midst of the Watergate scandal. This movie ends just as the Watergate scandal is beginning. In that respect, this film could be considered a prequel to All the President’s Men (1976). Yet, Trump has no Ellsberg of his own yet. However, there are a couple of people of this past year who have drawn comparisons to Ellsberg. One person who caught headlines this year is Chelsea Manning. Another of yesteryear was Edward Snowden. Manning leaked classified government documents regarding lies about a war just like Ellsberg. The only difference is that the war was in Iraq not Vietnam, and instead of a newspaper, she leaked her documents to the website Wikileaks. Yes, the Iraq War was the instigation of President George W. Bush, but some of Manning’s leaks were also about President Barack Obama’s administration.
So, for those who think this film is a critique of the Trump administration, the truth is that the closest and easiest comparison would actually go to President Bush or President Obama. Regardless of the bigger political implications, this movie succeeds on the basic levels of filmmaking, acting and directing. It’s also a triumph of the power and value of journalism and the press, as laid out by the First Amendment. This film advocates for that Amendment in a brilliant and amazing way.
This film also features a great supporting cast. It includes a Breaking Bad reunion between Bob Odenkirk and Jesse Plemons. It briefly spotlighted Tracy Letts and Alison Brie who with this film mark their third film of the year. Sarah Paulson and Bradley Whitford also represent the opposite ends of the spectrum of how Kay is perceived. It is one of the best of the year.
Rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 55 mins.
In Select Theaters.
In More Theaters on January 12.