In 1971, Katharine Graham had been running The Washington Post Company for eight years, having assumed control when her husband, Philip, took his own life in 1963. Painfully shy and prone to chronic self-doubt, she was an uneasy corporate leader and an unlikely feminist pioneer. Some were skeptical when, a few years earlier, she had hired Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, Ben Bradlee, to become executive editor of the paper.
Although the two enjoyed a warm working relationship, it would be thrown into a crucible in the summer of ’71 with the publication of the Pentagon Papers after the New York Times, which first broke the story, had been ordered to cease doing so by a court injunction. That bravado would send The Post into an epic legal and existential battle just as Graham was preparing to take her family’s media company public — a deal that could easily be scuttled by her potential imprisonment and a Supreme Court fight, not to mention the vindictive administration of president Richard M. Nixon.
Those tense couple of weeks in June form the spine of “The Post,” a fleet, stirring, thoroughly entertaining movie in which Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks play Graham and Bradlee with just the right balance of modesty, gusto and expertly deployed star power. Directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, “The Post” canters along with crisp pacing and straightforward, unfussy clarity, its two icons-playing-icons bolstered by a superb cast of supporting players. Unlike the Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” which Singer also co-wrote, “The Post” isn’t a subdued ode to cinematic restraint and shoe-leather reporting. Rather it’s a purposefully rousing homage to the ideals of journalistic independence, governmental accountability and gender equality that isn’t averse to underlining, italicizing and boldfacing why those principles are more important than ever.
All of those themes are embodied by Graham, portrayed by Streep in a finely tuned, continually shifting performance that begins with her character literally tripping over a chair in Washington’s tony F Street Club and ends with her walking through The Post’s printing plant as a far tougher, more confident, yet still aristocratically remote figure. It’s Graham’s transformation from insecure daughter and wife to journalist in her own right that gives “The Post” its narrative drive and poignancy. The film’s most memorable moments belong to Streep’s sometimes awkwardly sympathetic character as she enters yet another boardroom populated by men or, later in the story, when she emerges from the Supreme Court to find a sea of upturned faces of young women there to cheer her on.
Hanks is just as sympathetic in his depiction of Bradlee, a performance loomed over by Jason Robards’s Oscar-winning turn in the still-and-always-supreme “All the President’s Men,” about The Post’s Watergate era. If Hanks doesn’t bring Robards’s macho sex appeal to his depiction of Bradlee, he makes up for it in authenticity that feels lived-in and unforced. Unbelievably, this marks the first time that he and Streep have acted together in a film. They possess an easy, gently mocking chemistry that keeps the movie aloft, even when it threatens to devolve into a series of talky arguments or “But we can’t do that!” taffy-pulling sessions.
Propelled by alarm at the election of Donald Trump last year, Spielberg and his lead actors put “The Post” in front of cameras in record time, starting production in May of this year and bringing it to theaters in a scant six months. For that kind of turnaround, a director needs actors of near-perfect chops, and he has found them in an ensemble that includes Sarah Paulson as Bradlee’s then-wife Tony, who has a small but moving scene during a wonderful sequence while a gaggle of journalists and lawyers take over their house for a day-long editing session. David Cross, sporting a prodigious comb-over and stomach paunch, is nearly unrecognizable as Post managing editor Howard Simons. Bruce Greenwood is well cast as former defense secretary Robert McNamara, a close friend of Graham’s who, according to Graham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, helped fashion the newspaper’s argument for publishing the Pentagon Papers. If the film has an MVP, it’s Bob Odenkirk, who does a splendid and quietly amusing job of playing The Post’s unsung Pentagon Papers hero, assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian.
Oddly, the filmmakers chose not to include any scenes in which Graham confers with deputy editorial page editor Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon). Although the two were good friends, and Greenfield was influential in Graham’s evolving confidence, the viewer would never know it from a movie that instead includes more than a few soft-focus interludes with Graham at home with her daughter Lally (Alison Brie), worrying about the family legacy she carries, and which she might be sending to its finest — or irrevocably fatal — hour.
Those scenes demonstrate how Spielberg plays up the personal, professional and political stakes with efficiency and legibility, but in ways that occasionally risk spilling over into obviousness. He and longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have brightened up their usual palette of pale blues and grays to give “The Post” welcome warmth, but they often swirl the camera into circles to cover up for otherwise static, speechifying scenes. And, as he so often does, the director tacks on an extra ending for the benefit of the cheap seats that always come first in his calculations, subtlety be damned. And subtlety is damned, for eternity, in John Williams’s shamelessly manipulative score.
Still, that instinctive sense of what it takes to connect with a mass audience — so often snobbily dismissed as “middlebrow” — is precisely what distinguishes Spielberg as an artist, and it allows “The Post” to go for broke with such unselfconscious energy, feeling and, every so often, sheer beauty. And in fairness, sometimes what seems like overkill is backed up by the facts: If Bradlee’s young daughter Marina setting up a lemonade stand at a crucial juncture strikes some filmgoers as folksy to a fault, they should know that it really happened that way.
It’s up to individual viewers to decide the present-day relevance of a story in which a touchy, overweening president can be heard going after a newspaper he deems a personal enemy — “The Post” includes snippets from the actual Nixon tapes — or in which a working woman encounters endless, patronizing slights and condescension, only to come into her own with admirable, self-effacing resolve. But few will be immune to the romance that lies at the center of a movie that takes as much delight in pneumatic tubes, linotype machines and telexes trailing like bridal veils as it does in temperamental opposites finding common purpose in the institution to which they’re both truly, madly and deeply devoted.
“The Post” works on many levels, from polemic and thinly veiled cautionary tale to fun period piece and rip-roaring newspaper yarn. But at its most gratifying, it’s a love story, from the lede to the kicker.
PG-13. Opens Dec. 22. Contains coarse language and brief war violence. 115 minutes.