Meryl Streep stars as ‘Washington Post’ publisher Kay Graham and Tom Hanks is editor Ben Bradlee in ‘The Post,’ director Steven Spielberg’s drama about the Pentagon Papers.
My favorite moment in director Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” hinges on Meryl Streep’s delivery of the word “however.”
It’s late in the film. Katharine Graham, the Washington Post’s publisher and company president, finds herself surrounded by the usual clutch of tense, murmuring male advisers behind closed doors.
She must decide whether to defy Richard Nixon’s White House and risk possible incarceration by printing the first of many stories, in the wake of the New York Times’ groundbreaking and court-challenged coverage, about the massive classified report on the secrets and lies propping up the Vietnam War. The report was commissioned by Graham’s good friend, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.
We know the outcome. The Pentagon Papers did not stay a secret, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the newspapers’ right to publish. But a great performer can temporarily make you forget a true story’s resolution by burrowing into a character’s inner struggles. Graham’s advisers are pushing her not to publish, not to threaten the company’s future. Yes, that would be prudent, she says.
And then Streep, scratching her left eyebrow with her right hand, obscures her face entirely in Spielberg’s close-up and, raising her voice an unexpected half-octave, in a sort of tra-la-la way, says the crucial word “however.” From such howevers, First Amendment triumphs change the course of history, and from there, “The Post” chugs toward a sleek montage of linotype clinking into place and papers rolling off the presses.
The film has a lot going for it, alongside a certain amount of hokum. The project fell together quickly last year when fledgling screenwriter Liz Hannah’s script attracted the interest of Spielberg’s longtime producing partner, Amy Pascal, along with Spielberg and Streep. Once Streep and costar Tom Hanks were set, screenwriter Josh Singer (“Spotlight”) joined the project, and the script underwent considerable additions, cuts and revisions.
Hannah undertook “The Post” as a tribute to Graham, who bankrolled the Post at a time when the family-owned paper wasn’t even No. 1 in Washington, D.C. Spielberg takes pains to lay the groundwork for that part of the story. The film begins in 1966, with Defense Department contractor Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) caught in a jungle ambush in Vietnam and then writing up his report on the war’s progress, or lack of it. On a flight back to D.C., he confers with Defense Secretary McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who expresses deep frustration with the war in private but keeps it all smiles and dodgy optimism in public. In the movie’s swift shorthand, this is why Ellsberg leaked a copy of the Pentagon Pages to the New York Times and, then to his friend and former colleague at the Post, national editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk, a wry ensemble standout).
Most of the film unfolds in 1971 during the momentous week when the Ellsberg treasure-trove, first reported by the Times, fell into the Post’s hands. Hanks plays Post editor Ben Bradlee, already Hollywood-immortalized by Oscar-winning Jason Robards. Setting Robards aside, which isn’t easy, Hanks’ turn is valiant but effortful and is the film’s one casting misstep. (The seductive arrogance, the patrician dialect, the gruffness all seem to be a put-on in Hanks’ performance.)
Near the end, the film nosedives into sap, which is too bad. The writing becomes extra-speechy, with cries of “The legacy of the company’s at stake!” There’s a shot of Graham, coming down the U.S. Supreme Court steps, wading into a river of mutely admiring women, that looks like a scene from “Feminism for Dummies.” Sadly, all of this is unnecessary. It feels like little more than needless underlining of a busy film’s most pressing themes.
out of four stars
Rated PG-13; language, war violence
1 hour, 55 minutes
Opens with Thursday-night screenings
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