If history has shown us anything, and interestingly one of the protagonists of Spielberg’s masterful The Post describes newspapers as “the first rough draft of history”, it is that power, for all its love of intimidating show, prefers to exercise its less noble impetuses, of which there are many, in the shadows.
This is especially so in democracies where the naked, brazen abuse of power is supposed to be anathema; leave the dictators and despots to openly throw their weight around like wrestlers in the ring, the leaders in a democracy are supposed to govern solely for their electors and not their own doubtful interests.
In reality, of course, this is all fanciful idealising with the elected finding it all-but-impossible to resist the power-draped baubles of government, the chance to make and reshape the world around them far from prying eyes.
That is, in the case of the USA at least, until conscientious objectors such as former military analyst and activist Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) decide enough is enough, smuggling top secret documents out of The Rand Corporation in 1969 that come to be known as The Pentagon Papers in the hope of revealing how the American Government had lied again and again over thirty years about the Vietnam War.
But what would be the point of all this covert derring-do if you didn’t have some outlet for revelations so powerful they arguably played a significant role in destabilising the Nixon presidency which tottered and fellow a number of years later under the successive weight of the Watergate Scandal?
And so Ellsberg teamed up with Neil Sheehan (Justin Swain) from The New York Times, which boldly published graphic revelations from the Papers in supposed direct contravention of America’s espionage laws.
With the Government granted an injunction to stop the publication of thirty years’ of grubby Vietnam War secrets by the Times, the baton fell to then smaller regional player The Washington Post, under then relatively inexperienced leadership of Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) who had inherited the paper from her husband Phil upon his death.
The Post, directed with powerful cinematic understatement by Steven Spielberg, concentrates its impressive narrative heft on the days that follow when The Washington Post, through connections between Ellsberg and one of its reporters Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), is given the chance to continue publication, a decision that comes with considerable political and legal ramifications.
Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), a onetime friend of the Kennedys, is a man committed to pursuing a story come what may and he is all for it publishing and consequences be damned; Graham, however, still trying to prove herself in a male-dominated world which sees her custodianship of the paper as an aberration that will soon be corrected, and emotionally attached to a media entity bought by her father in 1933, is less sure.
She is, after all, close friends with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the Secretary of Defense through much of the 1960s and so consequently the man at the centre of The Pentagon Papers scandal, a connection that resonates with one of the main themes of this remarkably taut and timely film – can the Fourth Estate properly execute its mandate to keep those in power honest when it is effectively a part of that establishment?
It’s a grave question that Graham must answer, and answer it she does in a conversation with McNamara that beautifully underscores her growth as a newspaper publisher first and scion of society second, and its resolution proves fundamental to The Washington Post‘s decision to publish the papers.
This naturally brings the full weight of the bullyboy Nixon Presidency down upon her, the paper, imperiling in the process the recent stock offering, the funds from which are vital to continual solvency of the company.
Add legal culpability into the mix as well, and you have a potent brew of issues – access to the seats of power, freedom of the press, and the healthiness of democracy, all issues that have resonance in tonight’s troubled times which bear a striking corollary to the blighted years of the Nixon Presidency.
For all the bluster and import of these issues and the way they played out in a few short days in 1971, The Post is relatively nuanced, slowly drawing out the story and its implications in a patiently revealing way that really only becomes a little overblown in the final act when Spielberg gets a little too inspirationally showy for his own good.
For the greater part though The Post is rigorously focused, taking a story that doesn’t have any obvious action tropes – there are no car chases, no gun fights, no bitter, public battles between powerful societal behemoths – and letting it tell its own powerful tale.
Elegantly and forcefully weaving in a welter of issues from misogyny to abuse of power, the right of the State to rule as it sees fit vs. democratic norms, The Post barely puts a foot wrong, calmly assembling the pieces of a narrative puzzle that comes to define not just The Washington Post, now one of the towering influential giants of American media, but Graham herself who proves to herself and others that she is a worthy successor to her father and husband’s media mantles.
The film is effective because at no time does it sensationalise the story nor overplay its hand; Spielberg knows a good story and understands that it doesn’t need any embellishment, not that screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer hand him any, happy to let this gripping tale speak for itself.
Anchored by impressive performances by everyone involved, most particularly by Streep and Hanks who, amazingly, had never acted together before, The Post manages to make a statement without polemic clumsiness, giving us riveting action rife with stakes aplenty and democracy in the balance, and also the confidence that if good women and men speak up that even the most debased of democracy’s inhabitants must be made to heel.