‘The Post’ Serves Up A Thrilling History Lesson Just When We Need It The Most

The Washington Post has a problem. In the early scenes of The Post, the paper needs to cover Tricia Nixon’s wedding but finds itself without an invitation. The Nixon administration hasn’t been thrilled with the Post’s society pages’ pieces about their family, so the paper faces the threat of being shut out of one of DC’s biggest social occasions, one of tremendous interest to its readers. It’s ridiculous, publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) admits over a breakfast meeting with the paper’s executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). But isn’t it also true, she observes, that the social section had been a little rough-edged of late? A quick rebuke from Bradlee — a friendly-enough-but-firm “Keep your finger out of my eye” that would probably sound hateful coming from anyone but Hanks — ends the discussion even if it doesn’t settle the issue. The debate is business as usual and no issue is ever really settled between them. But they work together well anyway.

It’s a small story of no great consequence. What does it matter, really, if Post attends the wedding or makes some compromises to get in? But it’s nested within a larger narrative with grave implications. And it’s part of the brilliance of The Post, directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by Liz Hannah and Spotlight screenwriter Josh Singer, that each layer replicates the other, like a fractal. It would be easy enough to take the “no” about the wedding or, worse, soften the paper’s stance to please the powers that be, but there’s a principle at stake. And what matters at the macro level matters at the micro level. The people need to know what’s going on with those who govern them, public servants to whom they’ve given the power to make life-or-death decisions.

Sometimes this means sending them off to fight a war they know they can’t win. At the heart of The Post is the US government’s decades-long study of Vietnam, now known as The Pentagon Papers. With its frank discussion of the difficulties, and ultimate futility, of waging a war in Vietnam and candid admissions of interfering with Vietnamese politics, it was never meant for public consumption. But it ended up in public hands anyway thanks to Daniel Ellsberg (played here by The Americans‘ Matthew Rhys), a military analyst-turned-activist who leaked the study first to the New York Times then, as the Times’ coverage stalled due to a court injunction, to the Washington Post. The Post was promptly warned to cease running stories drawing from the documents it by the office of the Attorney General, forcing everyone to make a choice: cooperate with the Nixon administration or do what they knew was right and risk jail and financial ruin.

That’s the big story but, again, The Post is a film with stories within stories. The rivalry between two great papers, the Times and the Post is one, with Bradlee first becoming suspicious of a big story brewing thanks to the long break between bylines of one of the Times’ star reporters. And playing out largely in the background is the drama of how this information gets disseminated, with Spielberg lingering on the mechanics needed to take the study from a locked file cabinet to a photocopier to a shoebox to the reporters’ tapping manual newspapers to printing presses set by manual type. The film is incidentally a fascinating study of how much the digital era has revolutionized media within a relatively short span.

But it’s Graham’s story that ends up driving much of The Post. As the organization prepares for its IPO she prepares for a crucial talk with investors. This ought to be easy, given that she knows the business inside and out. But understanding the business is one thing, summoning the confidence to talk to a room full of men about it is another. And though The Washington Post is the family business, it wasn’t really supposed to be hers to run. Graham’s father had put her husband Phil Graham in charge, and he ran it with distinction until his suicide in 1963. Streep plays Graham as a woman still haunted by his absence, one who can’t always find the strength to project her wisdom and skill. But the crisis at hand forces her to confront both her loss and its lingering effects, including confronting the memory head-on in one especially memorable late-film scene with her daughter, Lally. (She’s played by Alison Brie, part of a cast largely drawn from the world of prestige TV that also includes everyone from Bob Odenkirk to Sarah Paulson to Carrie Coon).

That scene provides a rare still moment in the middle of a film that rarely stops moving. This is as dynamic a film as Spielberg has ever made, with or without dinosaurs or whip-cracking archeologists. The camera glides through newsrooms, stately homes turned into chaotic offices, and casual gatherings that unexpectedly become the places where history gets made. There’s not a wasted moment as The Post packs what could be an overwhelming amount of information into a story that ultimately reveals itself as a Capra-esque morality play with deep roots in recent history and a style that sometimes calls back to the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s. *

And it also, inevitably, echoes current events. Contemporary politics give The Post another fractal layer. It’s impossible to watch as Bradlee and Graham confront a vindictive and secretive presidential administration that sees norms as antiquated, laws as something to be ignored, the press as the enemy, and the people as dupes best kept in the dark and not think of our current president. And it’s impossible to watch and not remember that resistance — from the press or from the people in the street — can effect change. The Post would be a great movie in any year. It’s vital, funny, moving and a stunning example of what can happen with the right combination of a skilled, intuitive director, charismatic stars, and smart storytelling.

But this isn’t any year. The Post arrives at the end of a hard year when bad news and abuses of power have made it seem like creating change through defiance is impossible rather than within living memory, and that the grievances and prejudices of those in power have no limits when they should be bound by those they serve. And it arrives as another hard year when we need to remember that power is about to begin. We need this movie now.

The Post opens on December 22.

* It also does the impossible of slipping out of the shadow of that other film about The Washington Post in the 1970s, All the President’s Men, even setting itself up nicely as the first half of some cool history teacher’s future double feature.