Twentieth Century Fox
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Cast: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, David Cross, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Odenkirk
Screened at: Regal E-Walk, NYC, 11/30/17
Opens: December 22, 2017
On September 11, 2001, two commercial jets crashed into New York’s World Trade Center, resulting in 3,000 deaths. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudis. So what does President Bush do about that? He invades…Afghanistan. The reason? He said that’s where the terrorist training camps were. Now, 16 years later, the U.S. is still bogged down in a Stone Age country which not even the Russians, right on their border, could win after ten years of fruitless fighting. Did we stop world-wide terrorism by destroying some of the training camps near the Pakistan border? We did not. Terrorism soldiers on. Over 111,000 Afghanis, mostly civilians, were killed.
The moral: government cannot be trusted to make the right decisions. Never mind that the decision-makers may have gone to Harvard, Yale and Princeton. They have to be watched carefully, daily, weekly, monthly without respite. And who besides you and me has the ability to do the job of exposing government? The media. Before computers and the Internet, everybody read a newspaper. Look at the subways in New York in the 1960s and you would find everyone buried in print media. Now the papers are not as influential as they had been, but during the sixties and seventies, the periodicals were taken seriously.
Papers were important during the Vietnam War, prosecuted by the U.S. at least since 1963, rising to its most critical years during the Johnson administration, continuing into Nixon’s disastrous Presidency. If the New York Times were to publish this sentence, imagine what a verbal firestorm could ensure. The sentence is: “Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara believed early on that the U.S. could not win in Vietnam.” He said this six or seven years before the war’s conclusion in 1975 with a Viet Cong victory and a humiliating defeat of the U.S. He did not make this statement public, but regularly insisted at press conferences that we were making progress.
Presidents and cabinet officials have lied to the public. When Daniel Ellsberg, working for the Rand Corporation, photocopied secret documents about the war which implicated McNamara for lying, he delivered to the New York Times what would become the Pentagon Papers. The NY Times was quickly enjoined by the government from publishing the Papers. At the Washington Post, things were different. The Post was having money problems and had to go public on the American Stock Exchange to raise a few million dollars. Since their source of information about McNamara’s lying was the same Daniel Ellsberg, the Washington Post by extension was enjoined not to publish the Pentagon Papers. Therein lies the conflict which is the theme of Steve Spielberg’s narrative, one which closely following history. The Post could have played it safe, refusing to publish, but some enterprising staff members wanted to go full speed, forgetting that the government would not be happy if the paper published what was supposedly top secret infomation. Not only that: institutional investors on whose money the newspaper depended, might bail out, trashing the stock offering which opened at $24.50 a share.
The decision on whether the scoop all other periodicals and print anyway went to Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the publisher, and the first woman in that high position in any major newspaper in the country. (That’s what makes “The Post” in part a feminist movie.) On a dramatic day when she had to make a decision no later than midnight, she had advice from both sides; from people who urged restraint, from others who did not. Among the advocates of printing, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the editor, was partially conflicted, thereby leaving the choice to the female publisher.
The film itself contains moments of high drama, though scarcely the kind that had faced, let’s say, Marshal Will Kane, already retired, when he must decide whether to face the newly released thug Frank Miller in “High Noon.” A life and death struggle that was, and not the fight of a newspaper that could conceivably die by making a brave decision but on the other hand could emerge from being a family journal to becoming a serious national property.
The film starts as all films should: without its title or names of director, writers, and actors. A movie should have to earn the credits by revealing the story, and then take all the time it wants to reveal throw in the credits. At first, viewers may be confused by an array of activities revolving around the financial health of the Washington Post and its decision, not at all taken lightly, to go public. The financial dilemma is significant to the story, though, since the Post could presumably ill afford to take the chance of covering the lies of the Johnson administration and later the Nixon government, thereby landing the principal executives of the paper in prison. (That Nixon escalated the war by invading Cambodia and Laos was hidden to the public until revealed later by the press—but this is not covered in the film.) As editor Ben Bradlee Tom Hanks is almost unrecognizable. He was given a new haircut and his face appears to have been altered. Nor is his signature voice on display. It’s almost as if he had gone to a speech consultant who flattened his voice and made it the enviable bland American tones. Hanks co-stars with the illustrious Meryl Streep as the publisher who must decide: take the risk and move the Post to the forefront of international journalism or bow to the government. The case would be fast-tracked to the Supreme Court, which would decide whether the newspapers should represent the government or the governed. It would seem absurd that anyone in the theater audience would root for the Nixon government, any more than we would root that Gary Cooper’s Marshall Will Kane would lose his gun battle and die by Frank Miller’s six-shooter.
A pleasure to see some of the names that even non-movie-goers would recognize, principally Bob Odenkirk from the terrific TV episodes “Breaking Bad” and especially “Better Call Saul.” He is making frantic calls on an outdoor pay phone (if you’re under 20, be advised: that’s what the machine is), dropping dimes literally as he tries to engage the all-but-extinct gadget. Bruce Greenwood looks quite a bit like the Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, round face, rimless glasses, delivering humor to the movie audience by telling officials on a plane that the war was unwinnable, then facing the TV camera to praise our progress. Matthew Rhys has been given a haircut that exposes a bald head framed by two sides of hair, giving him a fair resemblance to Daniel Ellsberg—the Julian Assange of his day.
The film might be compared to “All the President’s Men,” and “Thirteen Days,” the latter about the tension surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis, which stands in for the critical days that put pressure on publisher Kay Graham here. This time Spielberg does not rely on the visual effects for which he is famous in movies like “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” “Jurassic Park” and “Empire of the Sun.” The Post does not need these gimmicks, standing as it does for the real dangers that can take place from decisions of the White House and especially the defense secretaries—and the important role of the media in checking this immense power. We don’t need the media to act as buddies of the chief executives, tempted by champagne parties and inside information that they can use to scoop their competition on such crucial matters as Tricia Nixon’s wedding.
Rated PG-13. 116 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B+