“The Times has 7,000 pages detailing how the White House has been lying about the Vietnam War for 30 years.”
“If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?”
“What are you going to do, Mrs. Graham?”
Steven Spielberg’s valentine to newspaper journalism is not as effective as, say, “Spotlight” but the movie is mildly decent on its own merits. Warfare opens the film as American troops battle in the jungles of Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) witnesses the grisly reality of this war and upon return, the bullshit lies that politicians (namely the Nixon Administration) are serving the American public. Upon his return to the states, Ellsberg walks away with thousands of pages of the Pentagon Papers showing that a succession of presidents had told bald-faced lies to Congress and the American people. Robert McNamara is on record in the papers as knowing the war was unwinnable in 1965. 58,168 American troops died in Vietnam and who knows how many of the Vietnamese people including innocent civilians.
We meet the legendary Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, the owner of the Washington Post in 1971. She is an untested female publisher at a crucial time for The Post as the enterprise prepares to go public. Swirling around Graham are various men who don’t think she can do the job and the stench of sexism emits from the screen. While conflicted board meetings are going on, editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (the always reliable Tom Hanks) is enraged that the New York Times had gotten their hands on the historically famous Pentagon Papers leak. An injunction kept the Times from publishing any more stories, so Bradlee has his team swing into action attempting to get the scoop before their competitors.
Enter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk known for “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” and giving an excellent performance in this film) who tracks down Ellsberg, obviously the same source to the Times, and obtains the Pentagon Papers. So the climax becomes the proposition that the newspaper company is going public and now is tasked with the decision as to whether to publish the Pentagon Papers and draw the certain ire of the Nixon administration.
The messaging of the film is pretty heavy handed. First Amendment. Freedom of the Press. National security issues. As the Washington Post published the Pentagon Papers, the owner, editors and reporters were not sure that they wouldn’t land in jail. Their lawyers told them from the get-go that they would wind up in front of the Supreme Court in a weeks time waging a historic American battle of the American public’s right to know versus government secrets.
In our current times with Donald Trump’s frequent attacks on the press and the recent James Comey memos suggesting that Trump wanted to jail journalists, the film certainly seems timely and relevant. The press, as is communicated thoroughly in this movie, is a check on power. If newspapers and journalism are not a check on power, then who will be?
A recipe for a powerful film indeed and that makes it too bad that the movie flops in the third act. Production of “The Post” was reportedly rushed when Trump started tweeting his rage upon journalists everywhere and, unfortunately, this really shows up in the third act. The Supreme Court proceedings, crucial for the climax, are rushed and the fall out from those decisions flow like dutifully recited cliff notes.
There are some appearances by President Richard Nixon, viewed from the back through the Oval Office window, wildly waving his arms around talking about the Pentagon leaks. I didn’t care for these scenes and would have thought it better to have Nixon not appear in the film. He could have been the ominous boogeyman, spoken of but never seen.
All that to say, this is mildly decent Spielberg as opposed to great Spielberg. Even mildly decent in the context of this project is hugely disappointing with the all star cast and explosive subject matter that has eerie relevance still today.
Lester Lauding Level: 3 (out of 5)