NEW YORK — Maimonides famously said, “we should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds.” But what about the times when great forces prevent us from knowing the truth? Or when knowing that truth might, as the Nixon Administration suggested in the case of the “Pentagon Papers,” harm the national interest?
These questions are asked in Steven Spielberg’s latest, the outstanding historical newsroom thriller “The Post.” But they’re only asked for a second. “What do you think we do around here?” Tom Hanks says when asked “if it’s legal” to zip up from Washington, DC, to New York to find out what a competing paper is working on.
The decision whether or not to publish the Department of Defense’s explosive, leaked Vietnam report was one that rested, at first, with The New York Times. But this is why director Steven Spielberg is a genius. His story is set at The Washington Post, which back in 1971 was not quite the journalistic powerhouse that it is today. It was undergoing an existential crisis (an initial public offering) just as the inheritor of the paper was stepping more assuredly into the top position.
The inheritor was Katherine Graham who, shortly after the story in “The Post” is set, would become the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. So this movie isn’t just about journalists standing up to a president with a belligerently adversarial attitude toward the Fourth Estate, but it also shows (often in subtle, visual ways) the way men distrust, ignore or otherwise belittle women in power. There could not be a more timely film.
Graham is played by Meryl Streep — and I know we’re all tired of hearing how great she is — but in this she truly is remarkable. She begins the film as a social butterfly filled with self-doubt and by the time we’re done we’re cheering her fortitude.
Anyone who has studied acting will see the way she takes what would, for anyone else, be just another line and spin it into beautiful music. “What kind of genius thinks to say such a nothing phrase in THAT way??!?” I muttered to myself as I watched this film. “Shhhh!” everyone around me said, because I was distracting them from Meryl Streep.
Sharing the stage is Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, the pugnacious editor who can’t stand being scooped and inspired his staff with just the perfect blend of backslaps and threats. When Nixon and his goons issue a court order against The New York Times (and the weary shoulders of Michael Stuhlbarg as Abe Rosenthal), the documents — pilfered by one of its authors, Daniel Ellsberg — find their way to Bradlee and company.
One would think that there wouldn’t be much cinematic spectacle in watching reporters read files and type copy as lawyers fret about litigation. But that is where you are so wrong!
As with his recent “Bridge of Spies” and “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg rounds out his “civics trilogy” with an upbeat and exuberant tempo. There are a lot of laughs in this movie (who doesn’t like Tom Hanks, currently at the apex of his “dad” actor abilities?) and when those enormous, complex linotype printers finally start clanking it’s like a cerebral version of Spielberg’s dinosaurs galumphing across Jurassic Park.
I guess that was a spoiler. The Pentagon Papers indeed got published, and proved what many suspected: that Eisenhower, Kennedy, (especially) Johnson and Nixon, were well aware they were fighting an unwinnable war. But patriarchal ego prevented them from accepting this, the quagmire just continued, and hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Again, a topical film.
Also: for anyone who’s worked a journalism job, there’s a gag about the rewrite desk that may just be the greatest inside-joke in a movie this year. Considering I saw this at a press screening, I thought the ceiling might collapse.