History's Rough Draft: A Review Of The Post
Tom Hanks & Meryl Streep as Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham
In one of the film's latter scenes, Washington Post owner/publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) is talking to her editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and recalls how her father described the free press as the 'first rough draft of history'. It's no surprise that in the midst of the Trump administration, the likes of director Steven Spielberg, Streep and Hanks would work double time last year to make a film such as The Post hit the screens in a relative record time. It may be centered on the fight to publish The Pentagon Papers back in the early 1970's; but there's a resonance and relevance to our present situation of 'fake news' and Trump seeing the liberal press as an enemy, that's unmistakable.
Told with understated elegance and aplomb, this is a film that has all the hallmarks of an 'old Hollywood' treatment; with strong ensemble work and linear exposition. The film opens with military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) witnessing firsthand a Vietnam jungle skirmish at night. We then fast forward to 1971, when Ellsberg leaks a report (United States - Vietnam Relations 1945 to 1967) to the New York Times, highlighting how four successive administrations lied to the American public about its involvement in Vietnam, and what the analysts were saying about the chances of success and victory in the struggle. When President Nixon has a court injunction effectively muffle the Times, the film relates the behind the scenes story of The Washington Post picking up the 'baton'.
I have to admit there is a somewhat plodding element to the film's first half exposition; and it only really picks up as The Post fortuitously acquires its' own set of Pentagon Papers and the true to life internal struggle on whether to publish or not heats up. The fact that Katherine Graham is a woman in a man's world is brought up effectively time and time again. And Streep is effective in portraying this arc from dilettante owner by circumstance to publisher of resolve who defies all her advisers, and supports Bradlee when it truly counted. While Hanks is charming and competent as Bradlee, his is a one note act; and it's Streep who gives more nuance to her portrayal.
It's the screenplay and narrative that ultimately works against the film being a great one. Rather than getting truly invested in the characters or the outcome, it's like we're just being asked to sit back and dispassionately watch the events unfold. It's quite telling how the film ends with the Watergate break-in, which eventually forced Nixon to step down—perhaps wishful thinking on the part of Spielberg et al?