Movies about the watchdog element in news media are now more important than ever. And because of President Trump’s frequent bashing and undermining of the press, “The Post’s” timing couldn’t be more perfect. That historical context is what makes movies like this one special.
“The Post,” directed by Steven Spielberg, tells the true story of Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), the strong-willed but protective owner of the Washington Post in the 1970s. Her struggle between choosing what’s best for her business and what’s best for the public — knowledge of the truth behind the Vietnam War — makes up the film’s central conflict.
That truth dwelled in a top-secret leaked report called the Pentagon Papers. The New York Times was the first to report on the story, threatening President Richard Nixon’s public image and causing him to obtain a court injunction that forced the Times to keep the story out of print.
But The Washington Post got its hands on a copy of the report too, and Graham had to decide whether to publish the report — risking jail time and losing her business — or submit to the will of the president.
In perhaps the most powerful scene, just after Graham makes up her mind, legendary Managing Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) picks up the phone and rings the pressmen waiting to run the press. “It’s Ben,” he says. “Run.”
And that was the decision: to publish the Pentagon Papers on the front page of the Washington Post.
The movie also pits the New York Times against the Washington Post — two of the most powerful newspapers in the country at that time. The battle to get the scoop, and to be the first to publish the many mini-stories within the Pentagon Papers, makes for an on-edge tension that’s hard to shake. But the leaders of the two papers end the movie united by a common enemy — Nixon’s administration — when they are summoned to the Supreme Court.
The acting alone makes the movie worth seeing. Bradlee — a hard-nosed, cursing editor seeking a fight — isn’t often a role that Hanks plays, but he plays the role with gusto, and pulls it off. And Streep brings out her character’s inner struggle in some tearful and laughable moments.
Many minor characters in the film are recognizable, too. “Better Call Saul’s” Bob Odenkirk and “Arrested Development’s” David Cross both play Washington Post reporters. Shots of hot metal typecast being stacked and sorted for printing the newspaper are sprinkled throughout the movie. The mechanical clattering of lead letters and ink pressed on paper is a throwback to the glory days of print journalism.
Movies about the newspaper industry often win major awards: “Citizen Kane” won Best Screenplay in the 1941 Academy Awards; “All the President’s Men” won four Academy Awards in 1977, including best Best Writing Adapted Screenplay; and Spotlight won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in 2016.
And with award’s season coming soon, “The Post” deserves a spot among them.