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Opinion The most interesting part of ‘The Post’ is its portrait of the Washington swamp

In this image released by 20th Century Fox, Tom Hanks portrays Ben Bradlee, left, and Meryl Streep portrays Katharine Graham in a scene from “The Post.” (Niko Tavernise/20th Century Fox via AP)

This column discusses the plot of “The Post,” which also happens to cover history that should be a basic part of American civics education.

There’s a lot to like about “The Post,” Steven Spielberg’s new movie about The Post’s role in publishing the Pentagon Papers. Obvious Oscar bait it may be, and unfortunately unsubtle monologues it may have, but the film’s vigorous defense of reporting in the interest of “the governed, not the governors” and its portrait of publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) at the moment when she broke into the overwhelmingly male leadership of the newspaper business, are both timely and touching. But to me, the most intriguing part of the movie was a more complicated note lurking at its center: “The Post” is an uneasy, if ultimately optimistic, exploration of the entanglements among journalists, politicians and policymakers in Washington, and of the conflicts between the financial and moral imperatives of the newspaper business.

When “The Post” begins, Graham, who took over management of the paper after her husband Phil’s 1963 suicide, is preparing to take the paper public in hopes of expanding the newsroom and making The Post more nationally competitive, with help from her adviser, Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), and a heavy dose of condescension from Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), a member of her board. Her executive editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), is frustrated at the prospect of losing a pending and mysterious major scoop to Neil Sheehan at the New York Times, and trying to figure out how to handle the White House’s decision to deny Judith Martin (Jessie Mueller), the future Miss Manners, credentials to cover Tricia Nixon’s wedding.

These threads converge when the Times begins publishing the Pentagon Papers and the Nixon administration gets an injunction to stop the Times, giving The Post an opportunity to catch up. Assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian (an excellent Bob Odenkirk) manages to track down Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys, playing a different kind of spy than he does on “The Americans”) and get part of the papers, a journalistic scoop and an act of solidarity that also puts Graham in a difficult position: Publishing the papers risks a felony indictment of both her and Bradlee personally and The Post as a corporation during the seven-day window when The Post’s initial public offering can be rolled back. It also poses a personal challenge for Graham, who is exceptionally close to former defense secretary Robert McNamara (a superb Bruce Greenwood), the man who commissioned the Pentagon Papers and who may also be most deeply and damningly exposed by their publication.

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The realities of the newspaper business laid out in “The Post” are much as they are today: TV stations make “a hell of a lot more money” than papers, and papers are inherently “cash poor.” In advance of The Post’s debut on the stock exchange, we see Graham rehearsing the same sort of talking points about “influencers” so common in the journalism business today: “Our readers are leaders,” she says, preparing for a meeting. “They’re educated, they demand more.”

At the heart of this specific plotline, though, is the idea that there are two ways to destroy a newspaper: to provoke the government so much that The Post becomes a toxic asset and the company it is part of is broken up such that the business is no longer viable, and to be so toadying to those in power that the paper ceases to have value for readers. It’s no particular surprise which choice Graham eventually makes, both because, well, we know the history, and because Parsons is written as such a heavy. He’s not merely oriented toward the bottom line; he’s an obtuse, mansplaining sexist. It’s to Streep’s and Letts’s credit that this plotline ends up feeling genuinely tense. Letts plays Beebe as someone who feels that his duties to Graham are fiduciary, but he truly loves journalism in a way that Parsons does not. And Streep, who is unusually well cast as Graham, even by the Streepian standards of excellence, makes Graham’s genuine fear that she could lose or ruin the paper she adores palpable. But as a moment of great financial pressure for the media industry, these sorts of decisions, whether they involve pivoting to video, kissing up to President Trump or becoming the voice of the Resistance, are all too real for many companies.

The conflicts of interest driven by personal attachments are even closer to the heart of “The Post,” and it helps that there’s a real actorly balance at work here. Throughout the movie, Graham and Bradlee spar over their relationships (hers with the Kennedys, and more particularly McNamara and Lyndon Johnson, and his with John F. Kennedy), both of them prickly about the degree of their independence.

Graham initially resists the idea of using her friendship with McNamara as leverage to get The Post a copy of the Pentagon Papers, while Bradlee insists that he never held back with Kennedy. “Hard to believe you would have gotten all of those invitations if you didn’t pull a few punches,” Graham tells him, in one of the great line readings of the movie and a scene that becomes the foundation for her more aggressive assertions with the men who surround her.

As “The Post” progresses, the Pentagon Papers force Bradlee to reassess his ties to the Kennedys, and for Graham to take hers with McNamara to a new, more honest place.

“I never thought of Jack as a source. I thought of him as a friend. That was my mistake,” Bradlee ultimately acknowledges to his wife, Tony (Sarah Paulson), after a day of reading the documents and confronting the shattering revelations contained within them. “The way they lied. The way they lied. Those days have to be over.” He finally understands that he was misled as a citizen, reporter and putative friend of the Kennedys. He was bought in ways he could never bring himself to recognize.

And though the climax of “The Post” is Graham’s decision to publish, one of the movie’s most touching scenes comes in Graham’s confrontation with McNamara. “It’s so hard to make sense of why, of how you could do all those things,” Graham tells him, composed but without mercy. “You let it go on and on and on. My son is home now, thank God. … But you let so many of us send our boys off.”

Though “The Post” makes the complexities of these sorts of ties for inside-the-Beltway journalists a plot point, it actually flattens history a bit. As Graham wrote in her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, “Personal History,” McNamara played a more nuanced role in the publication of the Pentagon Papers: He encouraged the New York Times to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers stories, and even helped shape the Times’ response to the Nixon administration, suggesting wording that would give the Times more room to maneuver as the legal issues wound through the courts. “Half an hour before its deadline, the Times recovered from a careless and potentially harmful mistake, courtesy of the former secretary of defense,” Graham explained.

Injecting this bit of history into “The Post” would have slowed an otherwise fairly streamlined storyline, and made it harder to draw neat parallels between Graham and Bradlee’s conflicts. Nonetheless, I have minor regrets about the way “The Post” handled McNamara’s involvement, not least because it would have made the movie’s portrait of the so-called swamp in Washington more challenging.

As it stands, “The Post” is a movie about how journalists and their publisher rose above the potential forces that might have restrained them from publishing an important story, a clear message, and one that’s a tonic to both journalists and our supporters in this moment. “The Post” could have made a more difficult and morally nuanced case that the ties between high-ranking journalists and people in government work in multiple directions, that these supposed entanglements can reap benefits for journalism as well as posing conflicts of interest. That’s probably not an argument that would land particularly well right now: It would be greeted with high dudgeon from defenders of journalism, and taken as proof of destruction by the media’s less-intelligent critics. But it would have made “The Post” more unsettling and more grown-up at a time when both our movies and our public discourse could stand to be jolted in that direction.