Once upon a time, many people got the political news of the day from original reporting in print rather than partisan TV talk shows and scandal-infatuated middle schoolers on the internet. It was a way to improve your daily focus on the nearest available approximation of the truth. As one character puts it in Steven Spielberg’s stellar newsroom drama “The Post,” “the press was to serve the governed, not the governors,” even if independent publishers and their largely unsung reporters risked prison terms and personal ruin.
That era is brought into relevant present-tense focus as a sophisticated political thriller that’s also a love letter to the paper-and-ink news industry. A period story set before, during and after the summer of 1971, “The Post” follows a dazzling Meryl Streep as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and an always impressive Tom Hanks as the newspaper’s executive editor Ben Bradlee, together facing a perilous decision.
While the film doesn’t quite reach the stratospheric levels of “Spotlight” and “All the President’s Men,” it is strikingly well performed and pertinent. Everything about the film feels weirdly familiar today.
U.S. military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, an entrenched Cold Warrior, became a whistleblower after experiencing the battlefield quagmire of the Vietnam War firsthand. He secretly released to the New York Times and Washington Post the Pentagon Papers, 7,000 pages of top secret documents detailing the dark history of U.S. involvement in the conflict.
Should the Post reveal that damning information to the public? Or should it avoid controversy and legal conflict with President Richard Nixon, suppress the facts and keep the Post alive to fight another day? While the momentous choice they made is familiar, the struggles behind the scenes make an absorbing drama and an intelligent history lesson.
There is an urgent immediacy to Ellsberg’s theft and release of the Pentagon Papers, the journalists who worked tirelessly to coax treasure out of that messy, unstructured data, and the Supreme Court challenge to the government over the right to publish the information. But the most important element of the story is the side-by-side biographies it offers. It would be hard to find partners more mismatched than Graham and Bradlee, whose monthly breakfast get-togethers in the neutral territory of a hotel are shown as being noticeably cautious on both sides.
He was an irascible alpha male, amiable and warm when he chose to be but a swashbuckling commander in his heart of hearts. Hanks captures his irreverent, adventurous spirit engrossingly. Watching him snap acerbic commands in the newsroom, you can see how this man helped invent modern investigative journalism. People were too cowed by him to disobey.
Streep plays a more layered role, a patrician yet vulnerable member of high society transformed into an amazing rarity: the female CEO of one of the country’s leading newspapers. Mrs. Graham, as everyone called her, took the position after her husband’s death eight years earlier and often relied on her male board members for guidance through the Byzantine world of publishing, politics, presidents and profit. Yet she proudly held her top executive position rather than lead a life of leisure and socializing, choosing to work and work hard. The two actors strike sparks off each other like flint and steel.
The personality of this movie is different from anything Spielberg has given us before. Here he’s not aiming to be artistically bold or visually striking but to create a strongly emotional feminist saga. While Hanks and Streep share equal screen time, she owns the film. Moment by moment and gesture by gesture, she masterfully moves Graham toward emerging confidence in a time of national crisis. In two outstanding scenes, it’s evident that Streep is heading toward her 21st nomination for an Academy Award.
At one point, she is on a phone conference call with men offering her tug-of-war advice on why she should follow their opposing recommendations on how to proceed. As her commitment develops she conveys every nuance of her evolving and shifting mood from conflicted doubt to epiphany.
The other standout comes after her decision to publish. As she walks down the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, protesters — many of them female — greet her. The gratitude and pride they bathe upon Graham, and the reciprocal feeling reflected back at them by Streep, is the sort of moment that puts a lump in the toughest throat. Anyone who doesn’t feel the emotion in that shot needs a lozenge.
Colin.Covert@startribune.com • 612-673-7186
★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for language and brief war violence.