Anthony's Film Review

The Post (2017)

A straightforward yet riveting drama about the press versus the government...

A while back, MSNBC news anchor Chris Matthews, who also happens to enjoy movies and talks about them occasionally on his show Hardball, made a rather interesting observation. He noted that some movies that take place in the past are sometimes meant to be commentary about contemporary events happening at the time of the film's release. For example, MASH is about finding humor during the horrors of the Korean War, but the message clearly applied to the Vietnam War still going on in when the film came out in 1970. Likewise, the 2012 film Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg, may be about President Abraham Lincoln's efforts to garner enough support by the House of Representatives in Congress to pass the 13th Amendment of the Constitution to abolish slavery, but it spoke to the divisiveness of Congress while Barack Obama was in the Oval Office in 2012. I say all of this because another Spielberg film about the past has been released concurrently with similar present-day events. I'm talking about the drama film The Post, which had a limited release in late 2017 before a wide general release in January 2018.

The film's title refers to The Washington Post, an American newspaper that has been prominent in reporting the biggest issues, including the Pentagon Papers related to the Vietnam War, the Watergate burglary that ultimately led to President Richard Nixon resigning rather than facing imminent impeachment, and the current issue of whether President Donald Trump had colluded with the Russians who had meddled in the 2016 presidential election to help Trump win. I won't be surprised if Chris Matthews cites this film as another example of a historical movie with relevance to contemporary events. That's because The Post centers on the Pentagon Papers matter that led President Nixon to threaten legal action against both The New York Times and The Washington Post, just as President Donald Trump is attacking the mainstream media for criticizing his behaviors and policies, referring to media outlets like CNN, NBC, The New York Times, and The Washington Post as "fake news." Maybe Steven Spielberg felt the need to remind the public about the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees, among other things, freedom of the press that is vital for a democracy where the people elect many key members of the government.

Anyway, let's talk about this movie. The Post, taking place from 1966 to 1971, is a drama that I could characterize as straightforward. I don't mean straightforward as in a plot that is linear with no changes in its direction, because there are a few events that seem to complicate matters. What I mean by straightforward is that the presentation of the story is simple. In other words, it's just a portrayal of how people in the newspaper business typically act (at least it seems that way to me). Also, the actors are not doing anything extraordinary in their performances, because again, the characters are behaving as anyone in newspaper business would be. And there is no one character who stands out above all others. Even if The Post stars Meryl Streep as Washington Post owner Kay Graham and Tom Hanks as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, they are no more important than all of the actors portraying lower-ranking Post employees. Essentially, the only thing about The Post that is really worth paying attention to is the plot, based on actual events.

Think of the movie as a three-act story, with the first act introducing the audience to the world of newspaper journalism and the actions of one person who set the story in motion. In the beginning, Daniel Ellsberg, a government employee who is dismayed by the Vietnam War, steals some top-secret government documents and photocopies them. Soon after, we see various little moments involving people at The Washington Post. Kay Graham is in talks with bankers about an initial public offering to transform The Washington Post from a small family business to a large publicly-owned entity, in order to not only keep the business alive but also to provide it with more capital. Ben Bradlee learns that The New York Times has published a story about those leaked top-secret government documents I mentioned earlier, so in order to compete, he asks a low-level Post employee to perform a small corporate espionage task: briefly snoop around The New York Times to find out what the rival paper will publish next. Even with somewhat interesting moments like these, the first act of the film feels somewhat like a documentary showing what people at the Post do every day.

Then comes act two. The Washington Post suddenly finds itself on the same playing field as The New York Times, because it too receives portions of the leaked documents. The few thousand pages of classified material, which would come to be known as the Pentagon Papers, reveal some unsettling truths about the Vietnam War, like how, despite the U.S. government's push towards greater military action, a study on the likelihood of a victory for the United States concluded that the U.S. would likely lose. This revelation and others would serve to enrage the public, who begin to feel betrayed by a government that made some damnable serious lies. One of the great scenes in this movie involves various Post reporters coming to Ben Bradlee's home to help sort out the pages of the leaked documents, because they are photocopies without page numbers that were mixed together haphazardly. I loved how the scene shows the determination of reports to get to the truth, such that Ben's wife and daughter assist by providing sandwiches and lemonade to these dedicated workers.

Act three is the climax of this drama. Earlier, President Richard Nixon is so dismayed by The New York Times's reporting of the Pentagon Papers that he threatens legal action against the newspaper. By extension, The Washington Post realizes that it too will face similar legal penalties if the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of the government rather than the press. Hence, Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee are faced with a very tough decision about whether to publish the classified materials the Post has obtained. There are scenes where these characters, plus others, reach a standstill, because the urge to publish the Pentagon Papers is countered by the fear of great reprisal from the U.S. government. Even if you are familiar with real-life events occurring after those in this film, you cannot help but put yourself in the same moral and ethical dilemma and ask yourself what you would do in that situation.

The Post is a drama that starts out as interesting in act one, then becomes intriguing in act two and riveting in act three. It's a progression of intellectual and emotional impact on the audience. That is a good way to tell a story, because a story should get better and better until the end and never dip in interest at any point. It's also neat how the main characters are not the individual people, but rather three organizations of people: The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the U.S. government. When I compare this movie to others that Steven Spielberg directed, I would put it a step or two below his best ones. But don't let that stop you from checking out The Post. It is still a drama that is both inspiring and educational, whether or not you have lived in the U.S. under the Nixon Administration. If anything, The Post is an American story that can be appreciated by anyone who had lived through any era of American history.

Anthony's Rating:

For more information about The Post, visit the Internet Movie Database.


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