‘The Post’ rousingly celebrates journalistic ethics

The Post staffers await a court ruling.
Photo: 20th Century Fox / Courtesy

Three and a half stars

THE POST Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.

Only Steven Spielberg could snag Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep for a movie hastily put into production to capitalize on current events (despite being set in 1971), and The Post proves that their combined talents can produce riveting, polished cinema in half the time most Hollywood filmmakers need to churn out something less than half as good. And while it’s not hard to find the contemporary parallels in The Post, Spielberg and screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer mostly restrain themselves from making blunt commentary on current events.

Instead, they present a procedural look inside The Washington Post’s decision to publish the classified government documents known as the Pentagon Papers, after a court order had halted The New York Times from doing the same. The Times’ involvement is more well-known, but Spielberg, Hannah and Singer use the Post’s perspective to tell an underdog story of sorts, as the paper is in the midst of a difficult transition, attempting to heighten its national profile and also preparing for a public stock offering. While movies like Spotlight or the classic All the President’s Men (also about the Post’s reporting on government secrets in the 1970s) focus on dogged reporters, The Post gives most of its screen time to their bosses, the people burdened with making the decisions that may bankrupt a company or land its employees in jail.

Hanks plays the more traditional gatekeeper character, executive editor Ben Bradlee, a born newspaperman whose first and only instinct is to publish the Papers, a series of damning reports on the unwinnability of the Vietnam War, despite the court order against the Times doing so. But the more intriguing figure is Post president and publisher Kay Graham (Streep), a woman in an overwhelmingly male world, who was thrust into the position of leading the company after her husband’s death, and struggles to be taken seriously by almost all of the men who work with or for her.

So while the story of how the paper acquired, interpreted and ultimately published articles on the Pentagon Papers is gripping and suspenseful, Kay’s journey is the movie’s heart, and Streep, giving a performance devoid of the silly voices and tics that have dominated too many of her recent roles, digs deeply into Kay’s conflicted emotions, as she summons her inner resolve but also mourns the friendships and financial security she may lose by defying the wealthy and powerful people with whom she’s associated for her entire life.

Spielberg is a superb craftsman, and he expertly builds suspense from reporters furiously typing, even earning most of the movie’s cheesy moments of triumph. Like Bridge of Spies, another fact-based Spielberg film about good people doing the right thing, The Post molds real life into a crowd-pleasing story without sacrificing the underlying honesty.

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