Boy, does Steven Spielberg know how to get you into a story. Even one with a topic as dry and heavy-handed as this one. He turns moments that probably shouldn’t be emotional into things that get you pumping your fist with the win.
The Post takes place in Washington D.C. in 1971, dealing with the Washington’s Post decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, which contained thousands of pages of secret information about how the government had been lying about the actual objective of the Vietnam War.
The New York Times had already gotten some information and run some stories about it, but they were silenced by the government with a court injunction. So the Washington Post now has a choice to make. Does it run the rest of the stories at the risk of violating the court order?
Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham, owner of the newspaper, in a brilliant character transformation. Graham has mastered the ability to exploit society’s view of her as a “dumb woman”, playing it up to her advantage when necessary.
It’s also a film about the press in general. It was a much different world back then. Newspapers seemed to have more integrity because they had to. They were society’s main source of information. They couldn’t afford to state their blatant opinions as much as today. Nowadays, there are so many news outlets that the papers can have more of a bias because there will always be an audience for them.
It’s hard to imagine this happening in this day-and-age where information can be released by anyone with a keyboard, but in 1971, if no official news outlet ran the story, it didn’t get heard.
The Post is filled with some thought-provoking and powerful messages about freedom of press and protection of the governed. It doesn’t take a political stance on any one president, but on all presidents.
The most powerful scene is when Bob Odenkirk’s character, Ben Bagdikian, assistant editor for the Post, tracks down Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the papers. They meet in a hotel room and Ellsberg discusses why he chose to disclose the information and what he’s willing to sacrifice for the truth. He asks Odenkirk, “Wouldn’t you go to prison to stop this war?” As viewers, we have to think about if we would do the same. Odenkirk responds, “Theoretically, sure.” Most of us are on the same page. It’s one of the only scenes not featuring Streep or Hanks, yet it ties the whole film together and brings the uninvested audience members into it for good.
Like I said, this is dry stuff. The details are as convoluted as the Pentagon Papers, themselves, and so the second act drags a little. But somehow Spielberg makes a gripping movie about the topic. And reels us all in by the end.