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The Post Review

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

The Post poster

My favorite moment in director Steven Spielberg's "The Post" hinges on Meryl Streep's delivery of the word "however."

It's late in the film. Katharine Graham, The Washington Post's publisher and company president, finds herself surrounded by the usual clutch of tense, murmuring male advisers behind closed doors.

She must decide whether to defy Richard Nixon's White House and risk possible incarceration by printing the first of many stories, in the wake of The New York Times' groundbreaking and court-challenged coverage, about the massive classified report on the secrets and lies propping up the Vietnam War. The report was commissioned by Graham's good friend, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

We know the outcome. The Pentagon Papers did not stay a secret, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the newspapers' right to publish. But a great performer can temporarily make you forget a true story's resolution by burrowing into a character's inner struggles. Graham's advisers are pushing her not to publish, not to threaten the company's future. Yes, that would be prudent, she says.

And then Streep, scratching her left eyebrow with her right hand, obscures her face entirely in Spielberg's close-up and, raising her voice an unexpected half-octave, in a sort of tra-la-la way, says the crucial word "however ...." From such howevers, First Amendment triumphs change the course of history, and from there "The Post" chugs toward a sleek montage of linotype clinking into place and papers rolling off the presses.

We've seen this sort of montage before, in Samuel Fuller's "Park Row" and a hundred other pictures. But the way Spielberg does it, it's a rousing valentine to a distinct period in the journalism industry. The movie itself is a blunt reminder that everything in this story concerning a craven, paranoid president's loathing of an aggressive free press did not exactly vanish with the Nixon administration.

"The Post" has a lot going for it, alongside a certain amount of hokum. The project fell together very quickly last year, when fledgling screenwriter Liz Hannah's script attracted the interest of Spielberg's longtime producing partner Amy Pascal, along with Spielberg and Streep. Once Streep and co-star Tom Hanks were set, screenwriter Josh Singer ("Spotlight") joined the project, and the script underwent considerable additions and cuts and revisions.

Hannah undertook "The Post" as a tribute to Graham, who bankrolled the Post at a time when the family-owned paper wasn't even No. 1 in Washington, D.C. Spielberg takes pains to lay the groundwork for that part of the story. The film begins in 1966, with Defense Department contractor Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) in Vietnam with his typewriter, caught in a jungle ambush and then writing up his report on the war's progress, or lack of it. On a flight back to D.C., Ellsberg confers with Defense Secretary McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who expresses deep frustration with the war in private but keeps it all smiles and dodgy optimism in public. In the movie's swift shorthand, this is why Ellsberg leaked a copy of the Pentagon Pages to The New York Times and, then, to his friend and former colleague at the Post, national editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk, a wry ensemble standout).

Most of the film unfolds in 1971, when Graham and company were taking the Post public, in the same momentous week the Ellsberg treasure-trove, first reported by the Times, fell into the Post's hands. Hanks plays Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, already Hollywood-immortalized by Oscar-winning Jason Robards. Setting Robards aside, which isn't easy, Hanks' turn is valiant but effortful -- the film's one casting misstep. (The seductive arrogance, the patrician dialect, the gruffness all seem to be a put-on in Hanks' performance.)

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and costume designer Ann Roth set a muted visual palette throughout. As written, "The Post" seesaws artfully between Graham's story and her newsroom's. The Post belonged to her late father, and then to Graham's husband, Phil, whose suicide led to Graham's control of the company. Some of the bits are pure screenwriting invention (it's not a documentary, in other words), such as Bradlee sending an intern to New York on an intel-gathering mission to find out what the Times is working on.

I love how Spielberg stretches out here, visually (he favors large groups in medium and long shot) and in terms of style. The first scene between Streep and Hanks, a testy breakfast meeting, runs more than three minutes in an elegant, unbroken shot. At various points Spielberg consciously evokes the intoxicating overlapping dialogue rhythms of "His Girl Friday."

Near the end the film nosedives into sap, which is too bad. The writing becomes extra-speechy, with cries of "The legacy of the company's at stake!" There's a shot of Graham, coming down the U.S. Supreme Court steps, wading into a river of mutely admiring women, that feels like "Feminism for Dummies." All this feels like needless underlining of a busy film's most pressing themes. "The Post" casts a wide net, covering Vietnam, the women's movement, the clubby proximity of the political and publishing circles in D.C., and (especially) the parallels between Nixon's White House and the Trump presidency. Spielberg has said in interviews that he was searching for a way to respond, through the right story, to Trump's assaults on the free press. He found it, all right.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language and brief war violence).

Running time: 1:55.

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