I got a government secret for you…
The Pentagon Papers were a collection of documents prepared by a think tank called the RAND Corporation on behalf of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration to determine if the Vietnam War could be won…they concluded with a simple “hell no” and vigorously explained why. However, the Johnson and the subsequent Richard Nixon administrations both continued to spin a narrative that the military conflict in Vietnam would end “soon” with total victory. Unfortunately for them, one employee of RAND didn’t appreciate presidential administrations outright lying to the American people, so Daniel Ellsberg secretly made photocopies of the entire collection of the Pentagon Papers and leaked them out to the press. And this, dear readers, is where today’s film begins.
We’re hanging out with the management of the Washington Post, specifically owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), as they deal with the fact their rivals at the New York Times just published the story of the century: the release of the Pentagon Papers. While Bradlee orders his team to get their hands on the documents by any means necessary, Graham is reluctant to find them as she is in the middle of securing her family newspaper’s future in the stock exchange. But after the U.S. Government successfully convinced a Federal judge to halt the publication of the Pentagon Papers pending a lawsuit President Nixon filed against the New York Times, suddenly the concept of the First Amendment becomes at stake. This leads journalist Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) to suss out who leaked the classified documents to the Times, and finds out it was Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), who provides the journalist with another copy of the incriminating papers. Thus, Bradlee has to implore his boss, who was attacked on all sides by her financial and personal confidants to NOT publish the Papers and endanger the Washington Post, to do the right thing and defend the right to a free press.
It sounds all very melodramatic and yearning for gravitas, and that’s because the movie has both of those characteristics thanks to Steven Spielberg’s solid direction. People usually take the guy for granted nowadays; but besides Scorsese, Spielberg is one of the few directors who have been working for 40-plus years and is STILL cranking out serious Oscar contenders. Even when he’s on tight production schedule like he was for The Post, since he shot everything between May and June of 2017 and finished editing the whole production by November of the same year. It’s an even more impressive feat that on such an intense and time crunch, Spielberg was able to make sure that his film contained solid character depth and tension that other films struggle with.
Multiple scenes are framed incredibly uniquely by Spielberg, and one tense debate felt particularly dynamic as all invested parties were arguing over the phone with each other. While that doesn’t sound like much, execution is everything and this is where a solid director can make a debate feel like a battle with quick cuts and a constantly moving camera. All of this helped by the stellar performances on display from the likes of Hanks and Streep as well as Bradley Whitford as a member of Graham’s Board of Directors, fearful of the effects of publishing the Pentagon Papers in the wake of the Nixon administration’s actions against the New York Times. But this does lead to a good question: why AREN’T we talking about the investigation by the New York Times?
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the weight and gravitas of the actions taken by the Washington Post, and I’m sure the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers was heavy on the minds of Graham and Bradlee as it could lead to everyone involved with the decision to be thrown in prison for contempt of a court order. However, as a film that discusses the inner workings of a journalistic investigation, it doesn’t carry the same level of tension or righteous fury as was seen in All the President’s Men or, more recently, Spotlight. At the end of the day, the New York Times beat the Washington Post to the punch and their rival had essentially done most of the heavy lifting, investigation-wise. The issue regarding the right to publish the Pentagon Papers at all doesn’t come into focus until the final 40 minutes of a two hour film, while everything before this dealt with the betrayal of trust between journalists and the politicians they were cozy with. This is pretty much why I’m not in love with this film, despite how technically proficient everything else in the film very much is.
Nonetheless, the final 40 minutes of this piece are really worth the price of the admission. That’s where the cursing, the debate, and ferocity between businessmen and journalists really come in to play, and it makes for some compelling drama all the way up to their battle against the Nixon Administration before the U.S. Supreme Court. And it’s not like the first two-thirds of the film were bad, it’s all quite competent and necessary backstory to help you understand why making the decision to publish these government documents were such a big deal. Further, the climax is where modern day connections are made between the reveal of mass-government surveillance that were made courtesy of people like Manning or Snowden, even if I would personally argue there is a bit more nuance to these proceedings. And this is mostly thanks to the help of people like Hanks, Streep and Odenkirk giving it their all as an ensemble cast should.
Further, much props to first-time screenwriter, Liz Hannah, for crafting an honest portrayal of these real-life figures without diving headfirst into hero worship (seriously, not my favorite thing to see). All the characters have multiple dimensions and are plagued with doubt over their decision-making, which makes the ultimate decision to publish harrowing because you genuinely feel what’s at stake with the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Also, it was very amusing for the film to throw in a Marvel-stinger right before the credits of the Washington Post’s next big scoop that ultimately doomed the Nixon Administration. Hell, I’d be happy if this whole team returned to make a remake of All the President’s Men.
This is a very solid film on the acting, writing, and direction front that I find little much to critique, even if I was slightly more interested with what how the New York Times first got a hold of this story and thought that would made for a more heavy-hitting film. As it stands, I think you can still find quite a lot to appreciate in The Post. While it won’t make my Top 10 of 2017, this is a strong contender as a Runner Up, I’ll say that much. So without further ado, The Post is a film worthy of a solid…
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