In fact, “Once upon a time” might have been a good way to start this movie. The Post follows those heady days in 1971 when former Defense Department official Daniel Ellsberg (played here by The Americans’ Matthew Rhys) leaked the Pentagon Papers, a massive, top secret government study of the the United States’ disastrous, decades-long involvement in Vietnam. At The Washington Post, then still struggling for national prominence, owner Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor-in-chief Bradlee at first watched helplessly as The New York Times scooped them on the story. But then the Nixon Administration got a judge to bar the Times from publishing the leaked documents, and the Post found its opening: Having just procured the Papers themselves, they could publish in the Times’ stead — but, given the legal complexity of the situation, they still ran the risk of Bradlee and Graham landing in prison. They also needed a small army of reporters to work round the clock wading through Ellsberg’s files — thousands of pages, unnumbered and out of order.
It makes for a supremely gripping story — filled with government secrets, meetings in dark rooms, late-night shouting matches and a race against the clock, all framed against a group of dogged professionals doing their job under the specter of a vindictive, power-mad president. Hanks gives Bradlee just the right dose of gruff, martial bluster; Streep’s Graham is the conflicted strategist, stuck in boardrooms with men who think only of bottom lines and profit, as she tries to argue for the importance of serious reporting.
And Spielberg connects with the derring-do at the story’s heart. Beyond being one of our greatest filmmakers, he’s also one of our most self-aware, and understands that he’s crossing the streams a little: He shoots this political drama like a long-lost Indiana Jones movie. The camera approaches the box carrying the Pentagon Papers with the kind of awe once reserved for the Ark of the Covenant. Photocopiers beam in the dark like objects of mystical power. Pocket doors in stately Washington homes slide open and closed like gateways to ancient temples. Trucks carrying morning editions of The Washington Post roll out like troop transports rumbling off to war. He even ends the whole thing on a breathlessly dramatic cliffhanger.
All that may sound overbaked, and the danger of such overt mythologizing is that it can drain a tale of realism or nuance. But Spielberg uses technique to add complexity, not subtract it: As we watch Graham drift in and out of rooms filled with murmuring men, we certainly get the idea of the gender imbalance, but we also understand something fundamental about her psychology, how she has had to navigate such spaces her whole life. It is both the source of her frustration — she struggles to speak up and assert herself in the film’s earlier scenes — as well as a secret strength: She understands the language of this world, and watching her slowly take command is stirring.
Spielberg also evokes Bradlee’s own inner conflict, as the editor recalls his famous friendship with John F. Kennedy. The two were neighbors back before the Massachusetts senator became president, and remained close during JFK’s presidency. As the fascinating new HBO documentary, The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee, makes clear, the two men shared similar backgrounds and temperaments: Their milieu was conservative and careful, their desires progressive and brash. Bradlee liked his proximity to power; he claimed not to benefit from it, but he absolutely did. (Here’s some fun synergy: One of the scoops that JFK gave him was news of the prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Soviets for downed U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers — which was also the topic of Spielberg and Hanks’ last historical drama, Bridge of Spies.)
For her part, Graham has to deal with her close friendship with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the former Kennedy and Johnson Secretary of Defense who had originally commissioned the Pentagon Papers, and who had overseen some of the war's most notorious escalations. Bradlee and Graham learn over the course of The Post to abandon the clubby congeniality that allowed politicians to lie to the press for so long without ever getting called on it. (It went further than that: Kennedy once sexually assaulted Bradlee’s wife Tony, whose sister Mary Pinchot Meyer was one of the president’s lovers; Mary’s murder a year after JFK’s remains unsolved, and at the time Bradlee reportedly helped keep the details of the affair in her diary from getting out.)
So, The Post is a tale that weaponizes nostalgia. It depicts how this long-established system of chummy collusion between politicians and press, one at times recalled with some anxious wistfulness by both Bradlee and Graham, came to be shattered. And it shows us how a strong press was instrumental in that shattering. At the same time, the film presents us — pointedly — with another layer of nostalgia, with a vision of a vibrant world of newspapers and reporters and editors and independent owners that itself is now dying out. As a result, The Post becomes not a fond, hazy glance back, but a terrified, urgent look forward: Who will hold power to account, it asks, if there’s nobody left to do it?