I’ve often wondered if the Best Movie Oscar win for Spotlight helped to reinvigorate readership of the Boston Globe. Most people get their news from digital sources these days, and the film, which details a lengthy and detailed expose, published in early 2002, of the Catholic church sex scandal within the Boston archdiocese and elsewhere, emphasizes the importance of being able to sit quietly at one’s kitchen table (as Spotlight reporter Sasha Pfeiffer’s grandma does) to absorb the shock of your religious community’s horrific evil and corruption. The quiet tactility of paper is more suitable, somehow, for news that stuns and repulses, than the vibrating insistence of a tablet, laptop or smartphone.
The Post; dir.: Steven Spielberg; USA 2017, 115 minutes. Our Rating: ★★★★/5
In an era where news media are under fire from a corrupt regime in the White House, and when indeed electronic devices are pulsing nonstop with social media intrigue and outrage in response to our unhinged president, papers like the Washington Post have engaged in hard-hitting reporting exposing the ramshackle frat party that is passing for leadership these days. Yet the “fake news” accusations continue. And when we learn that our consumption of news has, indeed, been compromised by Russian bots who manipulate the social media discourse, where do we turn for facts? Truth is far stranger than fiction at the moment, but if we can’t trust news journalists, sworn by the code of their profession to be honest, whom can we trust? The Post provides a glimpse of an era when news media and politicians were once close allies, sometimes to their mutual detriment. The timeliness of the film’s release can’t be overemphasized.
As the film begins, with a title stating “1966,” we see soldiers in Vietman painting their faces for battle and under siege by friendly fire. Fast forward to 1971: A man in a dimly lit office is copying classified documents; we don’t know it yet but this is Daniel Ellsberg (played by Matthew Rhys of The Americans in a deliciously ironic bit of casting), a military analyst who risked his reputation to reveal what he saw as information every American citizen had the right to know about. Glimpses of the documents refer to specifics of the failed strategy in Vietnam, and if we’ve done our homework we know these must be the famed Pentagon Papers.
We then arrive at one of the two main setpieces for the film: the offices of the Washington Post, where one of their main White House reporters is being banned from covering Tricia Nixon’s wedding (because the reporter allegedly crashed Julie’s reception). Meanwhile, in the other key location at the home of publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), the paper’s de facto owner since the suicide of her husband (who ran the paper at her father’s request, for in the 1960s no woman was expected to know anything about running a newspaper), we learn she has decided to take the family-owned company public: a big move for what was then a regional newspaper. Graham is intelligent, genteel and soft-spoken; but, somewhat uncomfortable with the business end of things, she’s happy to let her male board members (played by the likes of like Tracy Letts and Bradley Whitford) speak for her. This is a world where, after the dinner party plates are cleared, women still leave the men to their cigarettes, scotch and talk of politics.
When the New York Times breaks a story about the Pentagon Papers (leaked government documents from a government study revealing evidence that three presidential administrations, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, had lied to the public about the potential for victory in Vietnam) Post editor Bill Bradlee (Tom Hanks lending his trademark warmth to this gruff newsman’s manner) is annoyed to have been scooped by a New York paper just as his own reporters are exploring news of a leak. When a box of papers is dropped off at the Post (by a young woman in hippie attire, telegraphing her status as an anti-war protestor), representating a portion of what the Times had access to, National Editor Ben Bagdikian Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk) is dispatched to retrieve the entire trove of documents from Ellsberg, buying an extra seat on a plane to keep the boxes secure. In a thrilling segment, reporters work burning the midnight oil trying to write a story summarizing the significance of the 4000 pages they have spread throughout Bill Bradlee’s living room. Bradlee’s wife Tony (Sarah Paulson in a small but beautifully rendered role) quietly serves sandwiches.
Working hurriedly before the embargo on the Times’ reporting is lifted, the reporters still have to defer to the editor and publisher, who debate the wisdom of publishing this bombshell. At stake are the Post’s financial and journalistic future, and the personal relationships that Bradlee and Graham both have with various politicians, including Bradlee’s friendship with the late JFK, and Graham’s with former Secretary of Defense Bob McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). As well, Bradlee and Graham could face prison time. At the eleventh hour, Graham is called out of a gala at her home to take a call with Bradlee, her board members listening in on separate phone lines. Having previously left major decisions to the men in her orbit, Graham is now the decider, and, in her diaphanous gold caftan and carefully-sprayed hair, she softly conjures the firmness of authority and integrity to make the call. The paper goes to press, and the close-ups of metal type being set and inked, of enormous rolls of paper being printed, cut, folded, wrapped, tossed into trucks by shouting delivery crews, and finally unveiled at newsstands on the streets, is as exciting a scene as any Spielberg has wrought in his previous adventures spanning space, time, history, art or nostalgia.
The film’s moody period look belies its contemporary relevance. Using actors from recent politically charged films and shows (like Spotlight, American Horror Story: Cult, In the Loop, and The Americans, to name a few). Standouts in smaller roles include Carrie Coon, Michael Stuhlbarg and Alison Brie, but as with all of Spielberg’s strongest films, this excellent ensemble cast solidifies the story’s vision and resonance. Streep’s performance is low key and natural, a departure from the high profile personae she has played in her career (Julia Child, Margaret Thatcher, Lindy Chamberlain, or a facsimile of a young Carrie Fisher), but the incremental growth of Katharine’s courage and confidence are subtly expressed with Streep’s body language and ineffable face. There is nothing grandiose in this portrayal, no prosthetics, no unusual accent, no extremes of emotion. Indeed, Streep seems to inhabit this role rather subtly, playing a woman who was forced to engage daily in putting on a brave face in the wake of catastrophic personal loss. Realizing her personal role in a national calamity, she sees no choice but to do the right thing, as telling the truth always is.
Peg Aloi is a freelance film & TV critic who also writes for The Arts Fuse, the Orlando Weekly, and Diabolique, among other places. Her blog The Witching Hour appeared on Patheos for several years. She is also a traditional singer, organic gardener, semi-professional baker and practicing witch.