Steven Spielberg’s exhilarating new film The Post is based on true events surrounding the historic protection of freedom of the press following an American government cover-up. It revisits The Washington Post’s decision to publish portions of the Pentagon Papers, a highly classified report that chronicled America’s futile involvement in the Vietnam War, to inform public discourse of the truth.
The story begins in 1966 with government data analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) on a plane heading back to the United States. Using his portable typewriter, he composes a report of the violent scenes and deaths he witnessed in Vietnam. Daniel expresses his view of the war being hopeless to secretary of defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), but instead of telling the truth, McNamara grossly mischaracterizes American progress to eagerly-awaiting journalists. Disillusioned by the official script, Daniel surreptitiously photocopies decades-worth of classified reports with the intention of leaking them to the press.
The plot soon jumps to one of the main protagonists Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), as she is about to take her newspaper, The Washington Post, public. As the female publisher of a newspaper previously run by her father and late husband, Katharine lacks experience and must face a group of assertive male advisors who constantly doubt her resolve to make tough choices. Nonetheless, she proves her courage and steadfast integrity each time she is thrown a challenge. Perhaps the climatic moment of the whole film is solely her decision on whether or not to run the story.
Whilst Katharine successfully leads her company public, The New York Times receives the leaked Pentagon Papers and publishes an exposé of the government’s long-running deception of the American public. The scrambling White House immediately sanctions a court injunction against The Times, prohibiting any further publication. The Post’s editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), driven by his relentless commitment to democracy and freedom of speech, is determined to continue the story and assigns editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) to find Daniel as their own source for the documents.
One of the most memorable scenes for me portrayed Ben and Daniel genuinely vocalizing how terrified they are of the consequences that may result from publishing the story. They sit in a dark motel room with all the Pentagon Papers laid out in front of them, and weigh the pros and cons of defending constitutional freedoms against the looming possibility of going to prison. They ultimately agree that publishing would mean keeping the powerful accountable and saving countless real lives, prompting Ben to dash back to the newsroom.
For me, the rest of the film speeds by. Spielberg vividly juxtaposes Katharine’s darkly lighted, wooden-paneled world of crucial decision-making to Ben’s world of a chaotic newsroom with fluorescent lighting and equally crucial staffers. Katharine is hosting a soirée when Ben and his team of editors madly sift through the reports. Yet both characters are depicted equally part of the fight. In the end, Katharine courageously chooses to publish the piece, and The Post is immediately brought to court against the government of the United States. However, rather than an intense court battle, viewers watch the trial as a victory lap, as we know from history that Katharine and her team win the case. Katharine defies all expectations of her not only as a leader but as a woman, and becomes a true icon for female empowerment.
The Post, like many movies that turn the past into entertainment, dramatically traces a moment in history with wit, precision, and understated passion. The underlying theme of cheerleading the First Amendment makes a pointed statement about the current American administration and is more relevant than ever. The Academy Award-winning trio of Streep, Hanks, and Spielberg doesn’t hurt either.