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film Steven Spielberg’s Ode to Journalism in “The Post”

Starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep as Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham, this drama about the Washington Post is squarely aimed at our current moment. The movie, written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, sprouts from this rift between the true state of affairs and the alternative facts that are presented to the public. As is common knowledge, it was Ellsberg’s conscience about the rift that led him to steal—or, if you prefer, to liberate—a hulking stash of incriminating documents, which came to be called the Pentagon Papers.

Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham about 1966.,Deadline

The new film by Steven Spielberg, “The Post,” begins in the jungle, shifts to Washington, and defies us to tell the difference. Courtrooms, boardrooms, nicely decorated drawing rooms, and newsrooms furnished with little more than telephones and smoke: they all feel cocked and combat-ready, and every deadline looms like an ambush. With Spielberg in command, almost nothing is allowed to soothe the tension. If a great white shark swam by, it would be told to move on.

“Who’s the longhair?” So one soldier says to another, as they prepare to head into a dark Vietnamese forest, in 1966. The guy with the frizz is Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), who is employed by the rand Corporation and embedded with U.S. troops. On the plane back to America, he is summoned by the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), and asked, straight out, for his opinion on the war: “Are things better or worse?” Much the same, Ellsberg replies, and an exasperated McNamara agrees. But that is not what he tells the press, who have assembled on the tarmac to hear his views. “In every respect, we’re making progress,” he says. Greenwood has perfected the McNamara smile—long and curved, like a scythe.

The movie, written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, sprouts from this rift between the true state of affairs and the alternative facts that are presented to the public. As is common knowledge, it was Ellsberg’s conscience about the rift that led him to steal—or, if you prefer, to liberate—a hulking stash of incriminating documents, which came to be called the Pentagon Papers. In case the knowledge isn’t that common, however, especially among younger viewers, the words “Top Secret—Sensitive” are visible on the files that Ellsberg plucks from a drawer one night. We also get a potted history of American involvement in Southeast Asia, from Truman to Johnson. Spielberg remains a sworn foe of narrative confusion, and, as for potting, nobody does it better.

Among the audience for “The Post” will be a faction that chafes at the title and believes, not without cause, that it should be “The Times.” One problem with any heist is what to do with the loot, and it was to Neil Sheehan—then a correspondent for the Times, and later the author of “A Bright Shining Lie” (1988), one of the indispensable books on Vietnam—that Ellsberg wisely went. His move was understandable, given the reach and the resources of the paper, but, in Spielberg’s film, it annoys the hell out of Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the editor of the Washington Post, who, sniffing a scoop, fishes forty bucks from his wallet and tells an intern to catch a train to New York, with instructions to snoop around and work out where the smell is coming from. Sure enough, the Times breaks the news, casting grave aspersions upon governments old and new, while the Post is left to lead with a triumphant splash on the wedding of Tricia Nixon.

Hanks does a lot with Bradlee—more than you’d expect, given the twin obstacles that he has to surmount. The first is Bradlee himself, the unassailable star of his own life, which bore the shape and the shine of a golden-age motion picture; how do you match that? The second is Jason Robards, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Bradlee in “All the President’s Men” (1976), and showed a generation of men how to park their feet on a table. There was a time when only cowboys could do that, with a clink of spurs; now it was a Beltway Brahmin in a striped shirt. Robards also patented a kind of growling drawl—a grawl, so to speak—that Hanks is too smart to mimic. His Bradlee comes with a snap and a hint of a snarl, ditching the languor for the sake of impatience, and his trademark pose is a doughty crossing of the arms. One writer, who has requested two whole days to get a piece together, is briskly reminded that he is a reporter and not a novelist. Somebody else describes Bradlee as a pirate. Hence the gleeful—and, to be honest, very Hanksian—moment when, under siege from every angle, he ducks sideways and says to his assistant, “My God, the fun.”

The glee is not entirely shared by his boss, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), who, since her husband’s suicide, has been the sole proprietor of the Post, and whose default condition, for a while, appears to be one notch up from a tizzy. We first see her waking up, with a start, in a bed strewn with papers and books; entering a restaurant, she knocks over a chair; now and then, she has to take puffy little breaths, like a reluctant swimmer nerving herself at the pool’s edge. Not that you can blame her, for the water is infested with men. As a woman, even a wealthy one, she is all but alone in a hostile or, at best, a condescending world. The story is set just as her newspaper is about to go public on the stock market, in a bid to raise capital, and there’s a wonderful shot of a door swinging wide to admit her to the meeting at which the share price will be agreed. There, before her, is a thick male swarm, uniformly clad in dark suits. Politely, they part to make way for her, and yet, at some level, she is no more welcome here than she would be in the innermost chambers of the Vatican.

Streep, needless to say, is biding her time. No actress is more adept at pacing a performance, and everything in “The Post” gathers force and narrows to a point—to a closeup of Mrs. Graham, on the phone, under multiple pressures. What’s happened is this: the Nixon Administration, in a show of undemocratic muscle not seen since the previous century, has brought an injunction against the Times, compelling it to halt publication of the Pentagon Papers; Bradlee, sensing his chance, has grabbed it with his customary flourish; one of his stalwarts, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), has met with Ellsberg and collared a hoard of classified material (around which his colleagues cluster, like the Goonies inspecting a treasure map); after a storm of editing, the pages are made up and ready to go; so what, pray, would Mrs. Graham care to do? Streep goes into a superbly controlled cadenza of ums, ers, and agonizing aahs. Suddenly, her face clears. “Let’s publish,” she says. Even then, we get a last-minute hitch. By feeding from the same source—Ellsberg—that the Times employed, the Postis risking contempt of court, and its lawyers, who fear reprisals from on high, advise severely against going to print. Board members, with a stock issue at stake, are no less fretful. “We can’t let her do this,” one of them says. Like hell they can’t. Midnight strikes. The ditherer decides. The suits are trounced. The presses roll.

The scene is all the more rousing because of what Streep is wearing at the time. Mrs. Graham has, as usual, been hosting a party, and, this being 1971, she is clad in a gold semi-caftan number, as if the soirée were about to conclude with an Aztec sacrifice. The presiding genius here is Ann Roth, a trusted costume designer for Spielberg; reportedly, on the set of the new film, he referred to her as “my co-director.” Another regular is Janusz Kamiński, who has been Spielberg’s cinematographer since “Schindler’s List” (1993), and who gives us a jolt, on this occasion, by opting for lenses so wide that some of the compositions appear to stretch and bulge; as the camera scurries up a corridor, we could be watching an outtake from “The Shining.” Such cramming and crowding of the frame is presumably designed to convey the frantic mood of the era: quite a contrast to the art of Gordon Willis, who filmed “All the President’s Men” as if he were holding his breath, waiting and watching to see what, or who, might emerge from the quiet shadows. The sequence, early in that movie, depicting the break-in at the Watergate complex, in 1972, is mirrored in the closing minutes of “The Post.” One coverup, we realize, will bleed into the next.

Nothing is more promisingly solid, to the moviegoer, than a major Spielberg production. You can foretell everything from the calibration of the craftsmanship to the heft of the cast, and “The Post” inarguably delivers. Streep and Hanks are backed by players as proficient as Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who is in everything right now, and whose Abe Rosenthal, in “The Post,” seems to be closely modelled on Grandpa, in “The Munsters.” As for authenticity, we are spirited back in style. Everything smacks of the nineteen-seventies, from the photocopier the size of a small car to the actual small car, a mint-green Fiat, in which Bradlee, just to be different, zips around D.C. Nostalgists for vanished technologies, meanwhile, will moan with delight at the recurring images of type being set by hand. (Call it hot-metal porn.) Most distant of all is the weirdly intimate pas de deux between those who dwell in power and those who must hold them to account; Mrs. Graham, a hobnobber extraordinaire, drops round to see McNamara, one Sunday, even as her newspaper is gearing up to release information that will cut the ground from beneath him. It takes courage to stop the dance.

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And yet, despite this authentic re-creation of the past, “The Post” is not a period movie. Instead, it is squarely addressed to the present day, striving for the urgency of a headline. The film is here to warn us of fresh threats to press freedom; to confirm that the battle between real news and fake news is not without precedent; and to raise a knowing titter, as Streep—“one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood,” according to Donald Trump—delivers the line “It’s hard to say no to the President of the United States.” The President in question is Lyndon Johnson, with whom Mrs. Graham was naturally on familiar terms, but we get the point.

If anything, we get the point too much. Unlike “Empire of the Sun” (1987) or “Catch Me If You Can” (2002), which left us with a tussle of competing feelings, Spielberg’s latest work exults without a fleck of irony in its moral obligation—to lend dramatic form to the First Amendment. “The only way to protect the right to publish is to publish,” Bradlee says, and Mrs. Graham even wheels out the rusty nostrum about journalism being the first draft of history. Of what used to be termed gutter journalism, or, indeed, of what goes on down at gutter level, we see no trace. (Imagine what history would be like if it grew out of “His Girl Friday” or “Ace in the Hole.”) Nor is there more than a wisp of what McNamara defined as the fog of war; there is only the pack of lies that politicians tell, and the bright shining light that is beamed upon them by the press. Most people going to see “The Post,” or lavishing it with awards, will, I suspect, feel heartened and flattered by the warmth with which it endorses their own convictions. Is that all we desire from a movie, though—that it should agree with us, and vice versa? How do you prevent its principles, well intentioned as they are, from staling into piety? When a film is bang on the moment, as “The Post” is determined to be, what will remain of its impact when the moment is past? Maybe Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks are possessed, like many of their compatriots, by a deeper dread. Maybe they think that the moment is here to stay. 

This article appears in the print edition of the December 18 & 25, 2017, issue, with the headline “Paper Chase.”

Anthony Lane has been a film critic for The New Yorker since 1993. He is the author of “Nobody’s Perfect.”