by Alan Yudman
It is hard not to like THE POST. Spielberg, Hanks, Streep. Its success and quality are pretty much a guarantee. But the question, “does it work?” has been nagging at me for about three weeks. The answer is not cut and dried.
The publicity sells the movie as the story of the Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers and a flag waver for journalism. That’s part of it. The other part is the story of Katharine Graham, the late publisher of the Post. Graham inherited the paper from her father, Eugene Meyer. When he stepped down he appointed Katharine’s husband, Phillip Graham as publisher. But in 1963, Graham committed suicide. That left Katharine in charge. She was a Washington, D.C. socialite and while she ran the paper, the movie portrays her as an unsure figurehead who relied heavily on the board of directors for guidance. At the time of the Pentagon Papers, The Post was preparing to go public for the first time. Any controversy could scare off the banks backing the offering.
In the middle of this corporate drama, the New York Times publishes the Pentagon Papers. This was a classified analysis ordered by Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara evaluating the U.S. role in Vietnam. Basically, it detailed deception and lying on the part of Presidents going back to Harry Truman about what was really going on in Southeast Asia. And it was buried. But Daniel Ellsberg in a fit of conscience, and some might say patriotism, leaked the contents.
The Washington Post’s irascible editor Ben Bradlee did not like getting beat by the Times, but when a court order prevented the Times from publishing any more of the Papers, they were leaked to the Post.
That long explanation sets up the dramatic tension in the film. Should Graham publish and risk the public offering which will help the financially strapped paper or should she play it conservatively? It’s no spoiler to say The Post published.
The “how the sausage is made” part of the movie is ok, but kinda falls a bit flat when compared with movies like SPOTLIGHT or ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. Those make the process more dramatic. And because that’s not the total focus of the film it doesn’t get enough time to breathe. The part that totally worked for me was Katharine Graham’s story. Her evolution as a leader and a woman in power sent a sublime message, especially in these times where women’s treatment in the workplace is the focus of so many ugly stories. Graham was friends with Robert McNamara, so the dynamic was not just about the Post, but about her breaking free of her circle of privilege. That, plus the overarching message about the necessity of press freedom in the era of Trump made the movie work.
There are great performances all over. Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep. She hits the right notes without making Graham seem too “pearl clutching” or too badass. Bruce Greenwood is fantastic as McNamara. He’s got him nailed. It was a great, yet important small role. Tom Hanks was very good as Bradlee. But it took me a while to come around to that conclusion. First, I cannot think of Bradlee without thinking of Jason Robards’ Oscar winning performance in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. So, it took me a while to forget I was watching Hanks and get into his performance. But like Streep, he is fabulous in just about everything he does.
In the end, I enjoyed the movie very much. It fell flat on a couple of counts for me so I can’t say it was one of the best movies I’ve seen all year. Steven Spielberg put another project on hold to rush THE POST out this year. He thought it was that vital for people to know the story. Maybe if the movie was allowed to bake for another few months, some of the problems could have been ironed out. But given the current political climate it is immensely important.