A military analyst, disgusted by a government cover-up of the Vietnam War, deliberately leaks classified reports to the New York Times. Beaten to the story, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is forced to wait and watch – until an unexpected opportunity falls into his hands. Meanwhile his boss, company owner Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) struggles to take the Post public in a corporate world overrun by men.
I am a sucker for films about journalists. There is something about the race against time, the fight to uncover the truth, and lots of people shouting at each other in smoky rooms, slapping rolled-up newspapers on their desks. It is – the dramatised version of it, at any rate – an engine purpose-built to generate human drama. On that level The Post is a pretty snappy and entertaining drama: it boasts a little bit of politics, a little bit of business, and a little bit of human drama. It also makes a solid feminist statement in an extremely patriarchal 1970s environment.
The story will be well familiar to most viewers of a certain age, as well as anyone with an interest in 20th century American history. In 1971 a whistleblower leaks highly classified government documents that demonstrate that a succession of Presidents lied to the American people over the viability and human cost of the Vietnam War. The New York Times begins publishing articles based on the classified material, the Nixon White House shuts their reporting down via the courts, and both the owner and editor of the Washington Post must decide whether to keep publishing the material in the Times‘ place, or to hold off and keep safe from prosecution themselves.
The story follows a relatively conventional path, with relatively conventional characters. It makes The Post a weirdly disappointing film. It is well crafted and entertaining, but there’s a perpetual sense that director Steven Spielberg is slumming it. It feels like a minor work for him, as it does for stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. They could all be making something more interesting than this, so while the film is a pleasant diversion it really does not feel particularly momentous or significant. Given its immediate relevance to today’s news media and US President, it really should feel more important than it does.
The film twists around history a bit in an attempt to find its story. It sidelines Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers in the first place, and relegates the New York Times team who first broke the story to supporting roles. Its focus really is two-fold: Bradlee leading a news team to crack a story, which is effective and suspenseful but not particularly original; and Graham trying to step out from her dead husband and father’s shadows. The latter thread is the more fertile, indeed it feels the film could have leaned a little further into it and interrogated Graham’s personality and psychology in more detail.
This is a tricky film to judge, because in the end it is a good film that deserved to be a great one. It is solidly traditional, which is part of what makes it enjoyable, but it is ultimately a little too traditional to make a sufficient impact. Certainly the film’s later scenes, beginning with a visit to the Supreme Court, suffer from being a little too earnest and sentimental about the American spirit to really suit everything that has come before it. If, like me, you adore journalism dramas, The Post will scratch that itch. If not, you’re best off going to see one of the other prestige films coming to cinemas at this time of the year.