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Front Page - Friday, January 26, 2018

Critic's Corner: ‘The Post’ a moving look at history, a leader’s ascension

There’s a moment in “The Post,” a new drama produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, that will put a smile on the face of any old salt in the newspaper business. In the scene, a reporter is sitting alone in a newsroom at night, writing, when his desk begins to shake and the building starts to rumble.

It’s not an earthquake. Rather, the printing press below him is gearing up, and in a matter of hours a history-making story he helped write will hit the streets.

The reporter looks up, smiles and then returns to typing. What’s happening below him is a triumph, but he’s only as useful as his next story.

“The Post” isn’t just for wistful newspaper folk, though. It will also entertain anyone who loves a thrill ride. After seeing it, I made the following statement on Facebook: “Spielberg’s new film is every bit as exciting and suspenseful as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ I might need to take an Uber home because I’m drunk on great cinema.”

While I stand by what I wrote, I should have invoked “All the President’s Men” instead of “Raiders.” Set in the early ‘70s, “The Post” depicts journalists from The Washington Post as they attempt to publish the Pentagon Papers – classified documents containing undisclosed information about the actions of the U.S. government in the Vietnam War. The film can be considered a spiritual prequel to “All the President’s Men,” a taut political thriller about the Post’s historic Watergate investigation.

Starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman and released in 1976, “All the President’s Men” made a strong case for the role of the press as a watchdog of the government. “The Post” makes a similar statement but also finds in the paper’s publisher, Katharine Graham, a stirring story of female empowerment.

The film begins in Vietnam, where military analyst Daniel Ellsberg is tagging alongside U.S. troops and documenting their activities for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. During the flight home, McNamara tells Ellsberg and President Johnson that the war effort is hopeless. But when the plane lands, he smiles for the press and says everything is going well.

Ellsberg walks away disillusioned. I imagine he saw the faces of the young men the U.S. military was knowingly sending to their deaths.

Years later, while working for a civilian military contractor, Ellsberg secretly copies 4,000 pages of classified reports detailing more than two decades of covert U.S. government activities and admissions that the conflict is going poorly and leaks them to reporters at the New York Times.

While the Times is working on its breaking story, Spielberg takes viewers to the Washington Post, where he builds a parallel world of men in power and their absolute sway over their domain. The rulers of this kingdom include, among others, editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (portrayed by Tom Hanks) and the paper’s board of directors.

While Bradlee wants to put out a quality newspaper, the board is more concerned about the paper’s impending IPO than anything resembling good journalism.

In the middle of this maelstrom is Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), owner and publisher of “The Post.” Maybe you’re thinking, “Wow, that’s quite an accomplishment for a woman at that time.” But no. Graham inherited the paper from her husband, who committed suicide, and seems more concerned about keeping her friends, including McNamara, happy than anything resembling good journalism.

However, the Post is placed in a pressure cooker when The Times publishes its first story on the Pentagon Papers. Bradlee wants the paper to do its own piece (I love when he asks his editors, “Is anyone getting tired of reading the news instead of writing it?”), but the board and the paper’s attorneys rally against that effort when a court injunction halts the Times’ series.

This is when the roller coaster in which the audience has been placed reaches the top of the first hill and plunges forward. From that point on, “The Post” is about one thing: Graham rising above the firestorm of competing interests and opposing voices and making her own decision about what to do, regardless of the consequences.

But instead of using stunts and special effects to thrill viewers, as he did in “Raiders,” Spielberg fashioned intense dramatic scenes featuring brilliantly cast actors speaking the beautifully penned words of writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer.

While filming “The Post,” Spielberg was at the height of his ability to use the camera to reinforce the beats and nuances of a story. Early in the film, he places Graham in her chair at her desk and a male board member opposite her and shoots from behind the left shoulder of the man, making him appear to tower over her. Later, when Graham has risen to the occasion, Spielberg shoots her and Bradlee from the floor looking up, which shows her standing shoulder to shoulder with her editor.

In another wonderfully executed shot, Spielberg places Graham in a virtual vortex by circling around her from above as the pressure she’s under reaches its peak.

Streep responds by delivering a pitch perfect performance. What a pleasure it was to watch Graham overcome uncertainty and fear and come into her own as a publisher. Streep skillfully portrays Graham’s slow grasp of control, from her early, capitulating conversations with men who barely regard her position, to the first hesitant steps of her ascent as she confronts McNamara, to the moment when she makes a decision that will reverberate throughout her industry.

Graham was not the only one to stand up for the First Amendment right of the press to publish the Pentagon Papers. If “The Post” does any disserve to history, it downplays the role of the New York Times in breaking the story and pleading the newspapers’ case before the U.S. Supreme Court. But Graham’s decision to print the stories her staff had fought hard to prepare was a defining moment for the American press and worthy of retelling.

Although others stood alongside Graham in that battle, Streep was alone on the screen as she depicted this moment, and she did what more and more women in Hollywood are doing: taking their place in what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry. In that moment, there were no writers, there was no director, there was only Streep holding sway over the audience. She had me so firmly in her grip, I wondered if the history books were wrong and she was about to finally reveal what happened.

Just as impressive as Streep’s interpretation of Graham is the work of the production designer, art director and set decorator in replicating the world of the 1970’s newsroom. When Warner Bros. made “All the President’s Men,” they were only a few years removed from the events depicted in the film, so they probably didn’t have to go extremes to rebuild the interior of The Washington Post. The makers of “The Post” had no such luxury, but they still produced an environment that, as far as these untrained eyes can tell, faithfully replicates that time and place.

What a different world it was. Nobody loaded Google on their cell phone to see what was trending; they read the news when the papers hit the streets. I was especially struck by a shot showing the backs of several opened newspapers as a group of people read their contents.

This was a world when people crowded around TVs to listen to Walter Cronkite, newsrooms were filled with the clack and ding of overworked typewriters, copy editors scribbled on pages and reporters would look up from their desks and smile as printing presses rumbled to life. This world is so lovingly rendered in “The Post,” the film will put a smile on the face of any old salt in the newspaper business.

You might be wondering if “The Post” is a day late and a dollar short. How relevant is a movie about the newspaper business at a time when people are presumably getting less and less ink on their fingers?

Very relevant.

Considering the issues women are facing today, the story of Graham’s triumph of resolve is of paramount importance. As women continue to battle misperceptions and struggle to be perceived as equals, Graham is a beacon of encouragement – a woman who risked everything as she stood up in a world of men and made history.

And in this age of soft news and clickbait headlines, “The Post” serves as a reminder that the press exists to serve others, not itself.

There was a time when having a newspaper in your hands meant you were holding the truth – or at least a journalist’s best assessment of the truth. I believe enough in the integrity of the true press to say this is still the case.

It certainly is now. The newspaper you’re holding in your hands contains the truth about “The Post.” It is a rousing, relevant and entertaining film, and if you skip it, you’ll miss out on a deeply gratifying experience crafted by one of the masters of cinema.