The news broke last weekend that the Trump administration put in a request with 20th Century Fox to screen Steven Spielberg’s new movie “The Post” in the White House’s movie theater.
The White House requesting a movie has been a longtime practice in many past administrations — but the fact that the people in this White House want to see this movie is striking.
First, consider that the movie’s stars, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, have spoken publicly against Trump and that Spielberg rushed “The Post” into production specifically in reaction to Trump’s election. Then consider that the movie’s titular institution is The Washington Post, one of the many outlets Trump has decried as “fake news.”
When Trump or his staff sit down to watch “The Post,” not only will they be treated to a whip-smart thriller and a moving drama, they might also learn valuable lessons about the free press’s constitutionally protected role in keeping a check on unlimited presidential power.
It’s the summer of 1971, and the Nixon administration is angry at the Post over coverage of the White House wedding of Richard Nixon’s daughter Tricia. Executive editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) doesn’t want to back down when the White House refuses access to the Post’s reporter, though publisher Katharine Graham (Streep), a patrician socialite who travels in those rarefied social circles, urges her editor to apply a lighter touch.
But while Bradlee is negotiating the wedding story, the rival New York Times publishes a big scoop: thousands of pages of a classified report detailing the history of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. The report, leaked to the Times by a former Pentagon analyst, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), details how top officials in the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations knew the war was impossible to win, but lied to the public to keep it going at an added cost of thousands of U.S. service members’ lives. The documents became known as The Pentagon Papers.
Bradlee fumes and orders his staff to play catch-up. The assignment falls mostly on reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), who quickly tracks down Ellsberg, who offers him pages the Times hasn’t seen yet. But as the Post gets ready to print what it has, a new wrinkle develops: A federal judge, at the request of Nixon (who is heard throughout the movie via Tricky Dick’s own secret tapes), orders the Times to cease publication of its Pentagon Papers stories — the first time a government body has stopped a news outlet before it printed something.
The newsroom back-and-forth, the period details of typewriters and lead type, and Hanks’ gleefully gruff turn as the hard-charging Bradlee are cinematic catnip for any newspaper junkie (like me). But Spielberg and screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer find the real tension of “The Post” in the struggle Graham faces in publishing a story that could put her family business and her D.C. reputation at risk.
Graham was personal friends with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), Kennedy and Johnson’s defense secretary, who commissioned the classified report in the first place, and publishing them could embarrass her friend. But soon a bigger problem looms: Will printing a story, and defying a court order, jeopardize a pending public stock sale of the Post — and risk the company’s financial future?
Thus does “The Post” move from a crackling newsroom yarn to a showcase for Streep’s now-expected brilliance. It’s become routine to see her perform flawlessly, but here she quietly gives one of her best, and most perfectly calibrated, performances.
Streep, in her early scenes, establishes Graham as a product of her time, betraying a lack of confidence in a boardroom where she’s the only woman at the table. But when the Post’s fortunes and her family’s legacy are on the line, she shows a resolve to make the tough calls — sometimes going against male advisers who urge her to do the opposite.
The subtext of sharp women — such as Streep’s Graham and Carrie Coon as Post editorial page editor Meg Greenfield — having to navigate rooms full of condescending men is deliciously on point at this moment. Those men are represented by a Who’s Who of character actors, including Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Michael Stuhlbarg and David Cross.
Spielberg occasionally hammers a little hard on the main message of “The Post,” about the press’s watchdog role against a deceitful presidency, but that doesn’t make this story of First Amendment heroism any less compelling or necessary. It would be nice if Trump’s staffers, when they watch the movie, take the story’s lessons to heart. It’s vital that the rest of America learns them, and quickly.
A newspaper fights for a story, and a publisher fights for her paper’s survival, in this riveting true drama.
Where • Area theaters.
When • Opens Friday, Jan. 12.
Rating • PG-13 for language and brief war violence.
Running time • 115 minutes.