The Post 5* movie review: 'The discussion of free speech and the importance of rigorous reporting seems screamingly apt now'
The Post ***** (12A, 116mins)
As one watches Donald Trump oscillate wildly around the White House with his craven entourage and gravity-defying hairdo, it's tempting to think of him as an aberration, a ghastly one-off. Not so, however, because over the past two-and-a-half centuries or so a fair number of fruitcakes and eccentrics have occupied the august office, and one such was Richard Nixon.
Nixon was a more nuanced and measured individual than Trump, and could point to significant achievements while in office, like détente with Russia and the establishment of diplomatic ties with China. But Dickie was not especially keen on democracy in his own country, and used a gang of right-wing henchmen to persecute activists, bug the offices of opponents and sideline political enemies. He also tried to muzzle the press, and in 1971 got involved in an ill-advised row with the New York Times and Washington Post.
In February of that year, a disillusioned military analyst called Daniel Ellsberg had leaked a set of government papers to journalists from the New York Times. The Pentagon Papers catalogued decades of shameful meddling and violence in southeast Asia and offered a withering assessment of America's role in the conflict that was totally at odds with official accounts.
When the Times began publishing the Papers' findings, Nixon slapped a court injunction on them, arguing rather spuriously that further revelations would run contrary to the national interest. Into the gap stepped Ben Bradlee and the Washington Post, which was then a lesser-known newspaper but was about to become a major player.
It's not hard to see why Steven Spielberg thought this story timely. The Post in ways is a companion piece and prequel to the 1970s conspiracy thriller All the President's Men, and finishes at exactly the point where that great film began - the Watergate burglary. But The Post's discussion of free speech and the importance of rigorous reporting seems screamingly apt at a time where internet rumour has muddied the journalistic waters to the extent that a US President can claim that whatever he says on Twitter is real.
Tom Hanks plays Bradlee, the swaggering Post editor who would later unleash Woodward and Bernstein on the Nixon administration but, in 1971, is fulminating on the sidelines while the New York Times gets all the glory. But one of his reporters, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), manages to track down Ellsberg and get a copy of the Pentagon Papers, and when the Times is injuncted, Bradlee is ready to strike. But there's a problem.
Washington socialite Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) has just taken over as publisher following her husband's suicide and is nervously presiding over the Washington Post's floating on the stock market. It's a risky time to start defying Presidential diktats, and 'Kay' Graham is more used to hosting cocktail parties than making editorial decisions. Bradlee is asking her to make a big one, that could land everyone in legal hot water, and meanwhile a team of financial advisors are telling her to run a mile from the Pentagon Papers story. Who will she listen to?
In the end, she listens to her own conscience, and The Post builds beautifully towards Kay's fateful decision. No one in the world is better at telling complex stories with bold visual clarity than Steven Spielberg, and here he cleverly uses a sombre brown and cream palette to summon up the febrile gloom of early 1970s America. The arcane technology of hot metal and clanging typewriters becomes a stubborn symbol of dogged, rigorous journalism, the democratically vital activity every politician secretly loathes.
And if the film's tone is sometimes a little triumphant, that's surely forgiveable in the current context.
In his sleek and entertaining performance, Hanks makes nodding references to Jason Robards' portrayal of Bradlee in All the President's Men, and Meryl Streep's quiet, uncertain portrayal of Graham is a joy to watch.
Also out this week: Film reviews: Coco, The Commuter and The Final Year
Films coming soon...
Early Man (Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall); Downsizing (Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz); Maze Runner: The Death Cure (Kaya Scodelario, Dylan O'Brien, Patricia Clarkson, Thomas Brodie-Sangster).