“The Post”

 

            This is a throwback film.  There is much dialogue and no CGI.  No action scenes, no car chases, no violence, no sex, no nudity, no comedy, no“adult situations.” It could have been a play (and still could).  It could have been made in the 1950's, particularly with the pervasiveness of smoking in public places, and the maddening, smug entitlement of white men in suits.  But it's set in the early 1970's, when newspapers were still the predominant social media.  And their headlines mattered.

            Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is the hard-driving, chain-smoking, somewhat profane editor of “The Washington Post.”  He chafes at playing second fiddle to “The New York Times,” who seem to always scoop everyone else with the investigative reporting.  And now, they've done it again---they've somehow gotten hold of some classified material, a study ordered by then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) about America's involvement in Vietnam.  What the report clearly indicates is that not only has the current administration been lying to the American people, every administration since FDR has done the same thing.  Yes:  Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, Nixon:  all have secretly ordered escalating military involvement, all under the guise of Cold War “Domino Theory”:  that Communism must be stopped from spreading in Vietnam.  But the worst part is that the study freely admits that “winning” the war was never really a realistic possibility; the combat merely some leverage to get the other side to the bargaining table.

            That, of course, is a terribly cynical view, and hardly justifies the human cost of throwing the lives of American soldiers into harm's way.  Which is why the politicians consistently covered up their actions.  They knew it would be unpopular.

            When Ben Bradlee gets hold of this information, he immediately goes to his publisher, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), and asks permission to publish it.  The decision is not simple, and not just because it's classified material.  “The New York Times” had already begun publishing it, but was court- ordered to cease and desist, since the Justice Department filed suit, citing national security issues.  The injunction didn't specifically include “The Post,” but by inference, they could be held in contempt, with the editor and publisher potentially facing imprisonment.  Not only that, the paper was preparing for an IPO (initial public offering), for the first time selling stock in the company to the public, because of the increasing fiscal demands of running a newspaper (an economic reality which would only get worse).  And any adverse publicity could greatly affect the investors' outlook, and thus the IPO; even derail it.

            Tom Hanks is always appealing as an actor, and here he brings his natural likeability to smooth some of the rough edges off the otherwise foul, vulgar Ben Bradlee.  Meryl Streep brings her usual layered approach to portraying a conflicted character.  Part of her is the wealthy society scion who throws the kind of “insider” dinner parties that include people like her old friend, Bob McNamara.  Part of her is still the grieving widow; her husband abruptly checked out (self-inflicted), and left her holding this very large company, where she was suddenly in charge of a business she knew little about.  But there's strength of character in her, and depth of relational skill, and she'll need every bit of both when the morally complicated dilemmas suddenly arise.

            Director Steven Spielberg tackles a complex situation and focuses on one issue:  freedom of the press.  It's one of the foundations of our democratic nation.  And a privilege that should not be trampled upon by the powerful, no matter what their intentions.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association