Review: Meryl Streep rises to the top in “The Post”

  • In this image released by 20th Century Fox, Tom Hanks portrays Ben Bradlee, left, and Meryl Streep portrays Katharine Graham in a scene from “The Post.” Niko Tavernise—AP

For the Bulletin
Wednesday, January 24, 2018

“The Post” is a lushly filmed, moving dramatization of the Washington Post’s decision to publish excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, a classified report documenting how a series of presidents perpetuated this country’s involvement in the Vietnam War for the primary reason of avoiding the humiliation of defeat.

The Post’s decision, in 1971, was made difficult by the fact that the New York Times, the first to the story, had been ordered by a judge to cease publishing the papers, after the attorney general accused the Times of violating the Espionage Act and putting soldiers’ lives at risk. 

Daniel Ellsberg (played by Matthew Rhys), a former marine and military analyst, had secretly leaked the damning report after becoming disillusioned by government officials’ duplicitous public assurances that the war was going well. All told, more than 2 million North and South Vietnamese civilians, over a million soldiers from both sides and 58,220 American soldiers died as a result of the decades-long conflict.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, “The Post” celebrates Ellsberg’s derring-do as well as that of Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), the Post reporter who tracked him down; the mostly male Times and Post reporters who tapped away at their typewriters on deadline to report the story, and Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), their hard-driving editor.

But what makes the movie so refreshing is the attention it pays to the publisher, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), who ultimately made the call to publish the papers, despite the threat of financial ruin and possibly prison. While many of the men are shown as being motivated by emotions akin to what the presidents might have felt — vanity and a fear of being seen as weak or cowardly, for instance — Graham is portrayed as being laser-focused on doing right by all those Americans sending their children to war.

While “The Post” runs the risk of being self-congratulatory, it skirts this tendency with touches of humor. In one exchange, Graham and Bradlee disagree over whether the Post should take a stand over President Nixon’s daughter’s wedding reception, from which Nixon has banned the paper’s lifestyles writer for being too brash and snarky. Graham thinks the Post should give the bride a break and send a nicer reporter to the wedding, but Bradlee insists the paper stick to its guns. The top editor and publisher arguing over wedding coverage is amusing, but it illustrates the difference: Bradlee is stubborn; Graham, above all, is humane.

With its striking visual style, “The Post” sweeps viewers into two linked worlds, that of the old-fashioned newsroom with its typewriters and rotary phones, and old-money Washington, D.C., where Graham and her late husband, Philip, entertained presidents and other powerful elites. 

Streep, often seen as the only woman in a roomful of suits, portrays Graham as a kindly, slow-talking hostess of frequent parties in her elegant backyard. Katharine’s father, Eugene Meyer, the previous publisher of the Post, had passed leadership of the paper to Philip, his son-in-law rather than to her, a move Katharine didn’t question. But Philip died, in 1963, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, leaving her to take over. 

Once Katharine assumed the role of publisher, she was determined to do a good job, mastering the mind-numbing financial details to guide the company through its public offering. A provision of the sale was that banks had a short window during which they could withdraw financial support if anything catastrophic befell the paper. It was at this highly sensitive time that the Post came into possession of the Pentagon Papers. Adding to the pressure on Graham is that she is close friends with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the former secretary of defense, whom the Pentagon Papers show to be a liar. Graham confronts him, putting her allegiance to the public’s right to know the truth over her affection for a friend.

Viewers know how the story ends, but the script creates much dramatic tension, and it’s hard not to cheer for both Graham and Streep — two women who really rise to the occasion.

Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, “The Post” is rated PG-13 and currently playing at Cinemark at Hampshire Mall in Hadley.