Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” is the “Field of Dreams” of newspaper movies.
That’s right. It is melodramatic and sentimental and sometimes downright corny. In one late scene, there’s an almost heavenly hue to the sunlight bathing the crowd that has come to cheer the hero of the moment.
And just as Phil Alden Robinson turned a baseball diamond in Iowa into something of a shrine in “Field of Dreams,” Spielberg shoots the Washington Post newsroom and the printing presses of the early 1970s with romanticized accuracy.
To be sure, the nuts-and-bolts details (reporters and editors smoking in the newsroom, the typewriters and landline phones, the cylinders of pneumatic tubes used to propel copy to the printers) are historically precise, but we also get that unique Spielbergian light, that gorgeous and magical and dazzling light, to remind us something special is going on here.
This is a love letter to journalistic bravery and to the First Amendment, and it is the best movie about newspapers since “All the President’s Men.”
And even though it is set about 45 years ago, you will not find a more timely and insightful story about the importance of a free press, especially when a Constitution-trampling president is in office, madly scheming against his enemies in the press.
I’m talking about Nixon. Who’d you think I was talking about?
For a thriller containing multiple story threads, “The Post” moves at a crackling pace (1 hour, 55 minutes). As noted, it’s set mostly in the early 1970s, but it has the spirit and energy of a 1930s studio classic. Great actors in the lead roles, great actors in supporting roles of various sizes, and a rich, generous screenplay that hands out whip-smart one-liners and keen observations to just about everyone in the room.
The Washington Post in Spielberg’s film is a few years away from the groundbreaking glory days of Watergate and its status as a nationally important, widely respected journalistic powerhouse, which it retains to this day.
Even with dashing and competitive and impressively credentialed editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) running the newsroom, the Post is considered to be a nice little local newspaper, not in the same league as The New York Times, which continually scoops Post journalists in their own backyard.
This, of course, drives Bradlee nuts.
Meryl Streep (sure to score another Oscar nomination) is Kay Graham, president and publisher of the Post, but as Streep so sublimely conveys, Mrs. Graham was not the legend she would become, the person who would command any room she entered. At the time, she was unsure of her abilities to run the company, and she often grew flustered in the presence of the all-male board of directors (led by Bradley Whitford’s smug Arthur Parsons), who didn’t even bother to contain their desire to push her aside.
Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a former top aide to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), exposed the government’s decades-long history of lies about Vietnam when he sent dozens of volumes of government documents known as the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times.
Bradlee is beside himself. Scooped again!
But when the White House obtains a court order to stop the Times from continuing to publish excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, the Post has the chance to step up.
Thing is, the board doesn’t want to take the legal risk, and if the Post does publish, Bradlee and Graham could lose their positions and wind up in jail. So, you know, fairly high stakes.
“The Post” doesn’t sugarcoat some major conflicts of interest. Mrs. Graham was close with McNamara and other powerful Washington insiders; they were often at her house, enjoying cocktails and insider chatter, even as Bradlee and his reporters were trying to unearth the dirt. But when Bradlee gets a little too comfortable on his high horse, Mrs. Graham reminds him of his close friendship with the Kennedys, and how that compromised Bradlee’s journalistic integrity.
Streep has often played the most confident of characters, but she does an astonishing job here of showing us someone who is unsure of herself to the point that she tentatively rehearses what she’ll say before speaking her mind to a room of a dozen white men in black suits who don’t expect her to stand up to them.
Hanks, too, reminds us he can do just about anything with a character. Ben Bradlee isn’t the typical likable every-guy we’ve seen Hanks play so many times. He’s admirable, all right, but he’s a sharp and almost slick operator who isn’t interested in making friends on his way to burnishing his legacy.
There are countless brilliant supporting turns from some of our finest actors, from Sarah Paulson to Tracy Letts to Carrie Coon to Jesse Plemons to David Cross to the aforementioned players.
But the standout is Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, the kind of old-school reporter who wears out the soles of his shoes tracking down a scoop. In very limited screen time, Odenkirk delivers best-supporting-actor-level work, playing a journalist who, like the vast majority of journalists then and now, is primarily concerned with just one thing: the truth.
And all the cries of “Fake news!” in the world will never stop the truth-seekers from doing what they do.