The Post review: “Distinctly Trumpian in its themes”

Steven Spielberg's drama about the Washington Post's publication of the Pentagon Papers is a story for our equally troubled times

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★★★

I have to confess, I’m a sucker for true-life dramas set in newspaper offices or television news studios, which bring to mind shirt sleeves rolled up, telephones being cradled between shoulder and ear, note pads, printing presses and pressing deadlines.

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Though Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men still reigns as the supreme example of this specialist genre, more recent additions have included Spotlight, Zodiac, Truth, and Good Night, and Good Luck, along with the fictional likes of Network, The Paper, Broadcast News, Nightcrawler and State of Play. If these movies have one thing in common, it’s the search for truth. If that search was once noble and selfless, it’s even more so in an era where the President of the United State challenges the news and calls it “fake”.

Steven Spielberg, who founded his career on a fake shark but has embraced the facts on plenty of occasions since, has further ennobled the form with The Post. Set in 1971 in the offices of the Washington Post during the Nixon administration, the film offers a brisk, decent account of the leaking of the so-called Pentagon Papers, the nickname for a secret US Department of Defence report covering United States-Vietnam relations from 1945-1967.

Depicting a world when newsprint still mattered, despite the dominance of TV, this period piece is predicated on a collective nostalgia for the good old days. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have a contemporary resonance. Distinctly Trumpian in its themes, The Post addresses our concerns about the current administration by framing it around an equally controversial previous incumbent.

Spielberg’s latest slice of liberal history was made in admitted haste to meet awards-season deadlines and it champions good old-fashioned print journalism from the perspective of the compromised “fake news” age. The speed at which current affairs unfold in the 21st century renders cinema’s long lead times a huge barrier to relevance, but in this murky, retro-fitted arena, The Post succeeds.

Meryl Strep and Tom Hanks star as the Washington Post’s socialite publisher Katherine Graham and her hard-bitten executive editor Ben Bradlee. They become locked in a legal battle when the figurative bombshell of the Pentagon Papers lands in their laps, aware that its publication could expose the Nixon administration and undermine national security as war rages in Southeast Asia, potentially endangering further young American lives.

The gender inequality of the media is well conveyed – another issue with its hooks in the industry today – with Streep the only woman in a word full of middle-aged white men. Carrie Coon plays Meg Greenfield, the only named female journalist, but it feels rather contrived when that she gets to take a vital phone call in the editorial office and convey it to her predominantly male colleagues.

Coon nevertheless does good work in a small role, as do fellow TV actors Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford and Matthew Rhys, adding depths to endless scenes of men sifting through paper, making sub-editing marks with pencils and taking calls.

Cursory knowledge of the subject will spoil the film’s outcome, yet a fetishistic nostalgia for “hot metal” printing and bundles of first editions being thrown from vans is essential to getting caught up in the narrative.

Despite going a bit soft at the end, The Post does function well enough, even if it is preaching very much to the choir. However, a coda that references the still-superior All the President’s Men almost undermines the dramatic integrity of the whole thing.

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The Post is released in cinemas on Friday 19 January