Opening this week

‘The Post’ film review: A blast from the past that speaks to the present

Steven Spielberg’s newsroom drama stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and is set in 1971.

Steven Spielberg’s The Post is many things. It’s the coming together of three powerhouse talents – the director, and actors Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. It’s a triumvirate of such talent that you can only imagine the tectonic shifts that occurred during readings and shooting of this drama.

The 1971-set film is also Spielberg’s homage to the free press at a time when the media is often gagged or co-opted by the administration. And it’s a dramatic thriller based on true events of that time, when The Washington Post and The New York Times chased a story about how the White House had been lying about the Vietnam War for 30 years.

The New York Times has scooped an exclusive on the Pentagon Papers, a document that had been recorded under a directive by the American defence secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) in the 1960s. A whistleblower has released to the newspaper these classified documents that prove the US government’s complicity in perpetuating the Vietnam War despite knowing full well that it was a waste of lives and resources. In 1971, Richard Nixon is in the White House, and has continued with the interference in Vietnam that started in the 1940s. (Spielberg used real voice recordings of Nixon to illustrate the president’s stand and instructions.)

The Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and his reporters are now seeking the best follow-up story, one that will make them nationally relevant. As the editor of a family-owned local newspaper in the 1970s, Bradlee is believably committed to the truth and to the news. He’s also caustic and grumpy and disdainful towards the newspaper board. Bradlee is a composite of the singular, persistent editors that would today be battling against commercial priorities and political arm-twisting.

Meryl Streep plays Katherine Graham who, as the owner of the Post, is trying to find her footing in a male dominated world. Streep sets her pace, showing the conflict faced by a woman in a male-dominated world, to finally it bring it home as she steps out of the wings and confidently stands as an equal in the all-boys club.

Based on a script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, The Post will resonate with journalists and media professionals, right from the stinging envy of being beaten to a breaking story to chasing the crucial follow up, to the breathlessness of meeting a deadline. It’s all about getting the scoop, as reporter Ben Bagdikian (a superb Bob Odenkirk) demonstrates.

Spielberg steadily builds the drama, giving it the pace of a thriller. It’s a fight to the finish, involving tussles between board members and the publisher, editor and publisher, legal limitations, pressure from the White House and authentication. There’s a sense of urgency as Spielberg fans the embers of the integrity and honesty involved in walking against the wind. It may be set in the past, but The Post is a timely and urgent tale for the present.

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