Friday, January 5, 2018


Opening here this weekend:

The Post--Steven Spielberg's latest is, in a sense, a prequel to All the President's Men. Scripted by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, it dramatizes the Washington Post's handling of the Pentagon Papers story in 1971, in the face of the threat of legal action by the White House. Not that it's topically relevant or anything.

The revelations in the DOD documents sneaked out by Daniel Ellsberg had already broken in the New York Times but were stopped by a federal injunction after only the first few articles had run there. Ellsberg then gave the documents to the Post, among other media outlets, and editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katherine Graham were put in the position of deciding whether to defy the injunction.

The result, at least according to this movie, had a lot to do with putting the Post on the map as a national rather than a local paper. In other words, the story did more for the Post than the Post did for the story, and the movie could be criticized for being off-center: A journalist I know said he liked the film but thought it could more justly have been called The Times.

Maybe so, but the specific content of the Pentagon Papers case isn't really the dramatic meat and potatoes here. It's true that, as he did in Lincoln, Spielberg opens The Post with a brief but scary battle scene, to remind us that this isn't a civics class; these decisions have real-world consequences. Still, at some level this could be about any hot-potato exposé. Spielberg and the screenwriters boil the drama down to the choice of whether to run the story, not over doubt in its accuracy but under pressure from government bullying.

This is, admittedly, more superficial than All the President's Men, with its detailed unraveling of the implications of the Watergate case, and of the tiny clues and pitfalls that can make or break an investigative piece. But on its simpler level, The Post is exhilarating journo-porn, shot in newsprint tones by Janusz Kaminski and peopled with a fine pack of veteran character players, from David Cross to Tracy Letts to Carrie Coon to Michael Stuhlbarg to Bradley Whitford to Michael Rhys as the haunted Ellsberg to Bruce Greenwood as the even more haunted Robert McNamara. I think my favorite of the supporting ensemble, however, was Bob Odenkirk as a perpetually downcast Ben Bagdikian.

As Bradlee, Tom Hanks is unlikely to displace the classic turn by Jason Robards in ATPM, but he's steady and amusing as ever. All are overshadowed, however, by the star turn of Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham. Her attempt to rise to the ethical dilemma and potential legal jeopardy in which she has improbably found herself is touching, and its resolution is thrilling.

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