- UGLY TRUTHS: In Stephen Spielberg's "The Post," the Pentagon papers saga unfolds with a stellar cast: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Philip Casnoff, David Cross, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Jessie Mueller and Carrie Coon.
Movies, especially American movies, are always about one of two subjects: what to believe in or what to fear. Some of the best movies are about both, so it's no accident they're about newspapers — "Citizen Kane," "All the President's Men," "Spotlight," etc. Though the rustle of newsprint over breakfast has largely, and sadly, been silenced by the coming of the digital age, newspaper movies endure, and are steeped in that delicate balance of what to fear and what we should believe to help us triumph over that fear: specifically, the fear of explosive secrets hoarded by the wealthy and powerful for their benefit and enrichment, and the belief in the disinfectant of good journalism to expose those secrets and thus save the world.
To the list of great movies about the press, add director Steven Spielberg's "The Post." The film is designed from the ground floor up to be something more like a heist flick, with the players boosting information that was never meant to be seen by the public instead of jewels or casino bankrolls, than a film about the sometimes dry world of chasing down facts and figures over the telephone. Spielberg knows what he's doing after all these years, and his film is a standout that should be richly rewarding, both for those in front of the camera and behind it, when they start handing out Oscar nominations.
Before Nixon's spectacular downfall and resignation finally Ol' Yellered the American public's belief that our leaders in government would never lie to us (an antique notion these days, even before the coming of Agent Orange), we got a preview of coming attractions in the Pentagon Papers. Leaked to The New York Times and Washington Post in 1971 after being smuggled out of the offices of government contractor the Rand Corporation bit by bit by proto-Snowden Daniel Ellsberg, the exhaustive, highly classified report on U.S. involvement in Vietnam between 1945 and 1967 turned out to be a trove of ugly truths the American public should have been trusted to know years before, including the fact that as early as 1965, the Johnson administration and the Pentagon knew the war was unwinnable no matter how many American lives they threw into the meat grinder of Southeast Asia.
"The Post" starts with Ellsberg's theft (or liberation, depending on how you see it) of the report, but quickly shifts to the offices of The Washington Post, then a regional paper amid a fragile initial public offering, struggling to play catch-up to The New York Times with an untested and unsure publisher, Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep, superb as always) at the helm. After Ellsberg leaks the Pentagon Papers to the Times, Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) leads his band of disheveled, inky pirates (the sort that seems to hang around every newsroom) on a hunt for their own copy of the report. Just as they manage to get their own set, a federal judge drops the hammer on the Times, ordering it to print no more stories based on the leaked documents. That sets up some thrilling drama, with Graham torn between two, equally valid viewpoints. On one side: Bradlee and his pirates, hot after the story, determined to publish and making grand speeches about the freedom of the press. On the other, the attorneys and money men, telling Graham that the decision to publish will possibly sink the newspaper her family had built and entrusted to her after the unexpected death of her husband suddenly elevated her from socialite to businesswoman. It all leads to both the birth of the legal prohibition on prior restraint and the great Washington Post as we know it today.
The ensemble cast of "The Post" is incredible. Hanks and Streep will likely garner their umpteenth Oscar nominations for the film, with Streep maybe pulling out a win not only because of the Swiss-watch quality of her performance — which sees Graham transform from a timid lady-who-lunches to a lioness taking on the Boys Club — but because the Academy will want to see the Queen of Hollywood yet again stick a well-manicured finger in Donald Trump's eye from the podium. As good, however, are the lesser lights in the cast, playing the kind of shoe-leather reporters whose names don't make the history books. Bob Odenkirk of "Breaking Bad" and "Better Call Saul" fame plays Washington Post reporter Ben Bagdikian, and is a standout as the unsung hero who tracks down Ellsberg and serves as a middleman between Ellsberg and the Post. There are lots of good performances out there this year, of course, but I'm going to call this one: In an age when people of good will are itching to reward truth tellers (and depictions of them), Odenkirk will likely get a Best Supporting Actor nomination if not the statuette.
The Pentagon Papers saga is so vast and multifaceted — encompassing everything from our current need to mourn the great newspapers that once strode the land like benevolent colossi, to the uneasy necessity and resulting danger of official secrecy, to the inside baseball of what happens when money and information collide — that as a viewer, I found myself wishing "The Post" could have played Streep a little less (sacrilege, I know) in order to explore more of those fascinating nooks and crannies. The final arguments before the Supreme Court, for example, arguments that once and for all led to the creation of the notion of an unfettered press, are largely played off screen, which is a shame, both for posterity's sake and the chance that Jesse Plemons (aka "Meth Damon" from "Breaking Bad," who plays the Washington Post's nervous lead attorney) will get in on the Oscar nomination-palooza that's sure to result. Still, Spielberg knows his stuff, and instead of trying to cram in everything, he takes a very smart line in focusing instead on the circle of confusion, greed, fear, selflessness and righteousness inhabited by the government, the Pentagon, Graham, Bradlee, the Greenback Dollar, the law and the First Amendment. Such are the things that history, and great movies, are made of.