There is generally always some friction between governments and the media. In recent times, nowhere has this escalated more quickly than in the United States. Despite being a historical period film, The Post, focusing on the U.S. government’s historical cover-up of its long-term involvement in the Vietnam War, is sobering in capturing the zeitgeist. In exploring themes of government secrecy and freedom of the press, there are clear parallels to be drawn between the Nixon and Trump administrations. Director Steven Spielberg, working from a compelling screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, is in typically fine form working with a stellar cast. And whilst the film does not reach the lofty standards set by the similarly themed and widely revered All the President’s Men, it is a rousing reminder of the importance of the press and a fervent, resolute commitment to reporting the truth.
It is 1971. The United States has been waging the Vietnam War for over fifteen years, spanning four presidents. However, the nature of that involvement, and a frank assessment of the prospects for winning the war, were systematically covered up and withheld from the public.
This is all about to change. The Pentagon Papers – an exhaustive, extensive study of American political and military involvement in the war – have been (albeit very partially) published by The New York Times. After the Nixon administration secures a court-ordered injunction preventing any further publication of these sensitive documents, The Washington Post gains access to these documents. The film focuses on the tense discussions about how the paper should proceed, principally between the newspaper’s owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), her editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and the newspaper’s journalists, board members and investors.
One of the film’s chief strengths is its confined, intimate narrative scope. The majority of the plot takes place over a few days during a critical week in the newspaper’s history. At the same time as these startling government revelations are provoking considerable public concern, the newspaper itself is going public. Graham is particularly nervous about this new chapter for the newspaper as she has inherited it from her father and her late husband. There is also an explicit gendered dimension to perceptions of her managerial abilities that reflects broader social norms about women. Subsequently, the film plays out as a series of strained exchanges, couched within larger tensions between keeping the newspaper’s journalistic integrity and the associated legal ramifications, and the various associated personal and professional dimensions. What’s at stake makes for captivating viewing.
The performances are, perhaps given the pedigree of the cast, unsurprisingly strong. In many ways, Hanks has the more straightforward role. Bradlee is a candid, outspoken defender of the newspaper’s duty to informing the public. It is refreshing to see Hanks in such a brisk and brash role. In contrast, Streep is highly aware of her character’s conflicting emotions as she weighs up the options. She is variously confident, conciliatory and unwavering, and more astute than her all-male board gives her credit for. The dynamic between Streep and Hanks is particularly fascinating to watch. Hanks’ overbearing character and Streep’s more restrained demeanour make for an interesting juxtaposition. It is not always cordial, and there are definitely moments of disagreement, but the mutual respect is palpable. They make their working relationship believable.
The film is entertaining and accomplished, but it is nothing ground-breaking or innovative; Spielberg is less interested in technical or formal experimentation. Instead, he plays to one of his defining strengths: involving storytelling. On this ground, the film succeeds. It could have descended into patronising preaching, but it largely manages to avoid this. Instead, in an era of ‘fake news’ it serves as a reminder that the press needs to uphold a commitment to truth, and that legal safeguards need to be in place to ensure that this remains an ongoing possibility.
The Post is in cinemas from 11th January through Entertainment One.