"THE POST" — 3½ stars — Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk; PG-13 (language and brief war violence); in general release
If Steven Spielberg thinks print is dead, then he's certainly given it a loving eulogy.
Set in 1971 in Washington, D.C., Spielberg's "The Post" is based on the fascinating true story of the Pentagon Papers, a revealing and extensive series of documents that exposed backroom U.S. involvement in Vietnam stretching back to the Truman administration.
Tom Hanks stars as Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of the Washington Post. Thanks to a leak named Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), and some stealthy reporting by Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), Bradlee gets access to a top secret report that suggests multiple past American presidents were aware that a war in Vietnam would be a fruitless effort. But since the war is still on, there is some question as to whether printing the report would be damaging to the U.S. military effort.
Things are further complicated by the fact that the New York Times has already broken the story and been shut down by the Nixon White House. If the Post also goes to press, they could also face legal action — even prison time for Bradlee.
Of course, Bradlee isn't the one making the final call. Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham, the Post's publisher, who is still wrestling with her groundbreaking position as the female head of a major paper. She's already facing internal and external criticism and could join Bradlee in jail if things go south.
Spielberg skillfully sets up the drama as a confrontation of principles and ideals, though admittedly, things are weighted pretty heavy on the side of freedom of the press against that old reliable bad guy, President Richard M. Nixon (whose actual voice is used for certain scenes in the film). And given the timing of the film — which trails off with a foreboding finger toward the Watergate scandal to come — it isn't hard to read "The Post" as a criticism of our current administration, which has had an especially combative relationship with the media.
Spielberg may see "The Post" as a criticism of the Trump administration, but as he unpacks the publishing process in a way that is both informative and engrossing, his film also becomes an indictment of our modern 24/7 news cycle, which has a tendency to spit out headlines and half-formed stories without so much verification as determination.
But even aside from the ideological themes, "The Post" feels like an endearing tribute to a past era. It is also interesting to see the portrayal of a time where fraternization between highly placed politicos such as Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) and press figures like Graham was much more casual.
Movie fans will enjoy seeing Hanks as Bradlee, the iconic news figure who was previously immortalized by Jason Robards in 1976's "All the President's Men," and Streep's performance is meant to underscore a theme of female empowerment (Graham was also the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company).
Regardless of what you take from its message, though, "The Post" stands as a tribute to Spielberg's skill as a storyteller, imbuing his backroom story with generous suspense and tension without needing the spectacular action scenes of so many of his celebrated past films.
"The Post" is rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence; running time: 115 minutes.