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The Post movie review: Saving private citizens

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in The Post
Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in The Post

When I saw Spotlight, it made me proud to be a journalist. Even though I only write about movies, I felt proud to be part of a profession that exposes the truth. The Post not only reinvigorated my pride to be a journalist, but gave me hope for the future. If The Washington Post could fight Richard Nixon, journalism can prevail again.

Back in 1971, The Washington Post was a struggling local paper of D.C. whose publisher, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) was making an IPO to help keep the paper afloat. The New York Times was scooping the Post on anything political, but when Nixon’s injunction halted the Times’ reports on the Pentagon Papers, that was the window The Post seized to become relevant.

The Post
Washington Post newsroom 1971 in The Post

With the Times frozen, writer Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) gets access to the Pentagon Papers, featuring Bob McNamara (Bruce Greenwood)’s detailed accounts of U.S. failures and deception regarding the Vietnam War. The Post Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) wants to publish, but legal counsel and the financial board don’t want to risk losing investors, let alone going to prison.

The Post ratchets up the tension of this debate via Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s incisive script. What pages do they pick out of 4000? Which are the most incriminating? How can they be sure they’re not publishing compromising war data that would be criminal?

One mistake could end journalism. It’s not just one paper. They can’t afford to print more news if they’re shut down or sold off, and if the President can do that, no news is safe.

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in The Post
Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep save journalism in The Post

These debates flow through the Bradlee house with different groups of characters arguing. Spielberg really milks the triumphant moment of Graham’s decision. It’s a phone call but there’s nothing Spielberg can’t turn into pivotal cinema.

Everyone’s part in the Post story is so vital, each character has weight, and the actors give their performances the weight of conviction. It is exhilarating to watch them go to bat for their causes.

Legal counsel Roger Clark (Jesse Plemons) has a point about the exposure to which they’re opening themselves. Bagdikian has a point about protecting his source.

Tom Hanks - The Post
Tom Hanks and the staff of The Post

Money men Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts) and Afthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) don’t want to go bankrupt, and really don’t want to go to jail. Even the proofreader has to make sure the text passes in time to hit the presses.

Bradlee has a point about the philosophical importance of a single news story. He’s not frivolous. It wouldn’t help journalism much to call the President’s bluff on a regular basis, but he sees the longterm benefit of standing his ground.

The Post gives Graham the most credit for her bravery. More than Graham is even aware of, the film conveys how she had the most to lose among all these high stakes. And she saved journalism.

Meryl Streep as Kay Graham in The Post

Early scenes about old school newsrooms warmed my heart. I came of age in the freelance era so I’ve never worked in a newsroom. They sent spies to rival offices to check their front page layouts and stood by their reporters.

Bradlee already refuses to back down to Nixon over covering his daughter’s wedding. I’ve been blessed to have several editors who’d go to bat for me over ethical issues (in my case over breaking movie news vs. studio and talent reps). The Post is a tribute to them too.

Much of the cinematography is looking up at the characters. For the reporters and editors, it’s hero worship. For the naysayers, it’s the forces of oppression looming over us.

The press room opening the package of Pentagon documents is The Post’s moment of Spielbergian wonder. It’s as big as Elliott opening the shed door or Indy holding the Staff of Ra.

Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks - The Post
Steven Spielberg with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in The Post

I was not even born yet when this story took place, but were it not for the single decision of Kay Graham, I could have grown up in a completely different life. Because she had faith in her paper, the truth came out. Because The Washington Post gained the credibility of breaking the story, they could continue to publish and employ Woodward and Bernstein.

What if she’d played it safe? What if cooperating with the Times injunction let the Pentagon Papers get suppressed? What if no one felt safe blowing the whistle on the President and what if Nixon finished out his presidency, paving the way for more corruption?

Of course, other bad things happened in the ‘80s, but the press was empowered to report on them too. I’m thinking, if Nixon had stayed, Vietnam would have continued and who knows what else he had planned for us.

Things may look bad. They may even get worse. Just remember, every decision can matter. Make the right decision like Kay Graham did.

The Post opens in select theaters December 22 and everywhere in 2018.


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