In 1971, Chief Justice Hugo Black, citing “the press was to serve the governed not the governors,” issued a monumental U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of both The New York Times and The Washington Post to allow their publication of what became known as the “Pentagon Papers.” The Post covers one of the most tumultuous periods in modern American history, as embedded military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) sees the horrors of the Viet Nam war and becomes disillusioned when he discovers the possibility that the truth is being hidden from the American people. On his return, Ellsberg raids a locked file cabinet in the Rand Corporation DC headquarters and pilfers a formal assessment of the US-Viet Nam strategy that was put together by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). When copies of these highly classified documents, revealing a massive governmental cover up of the Viet Nam campaign, are leaked to the New York Times, the real story of this film begins.
As the cash-strapped Washington Post seeks to become a publicly traded company, owner Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) huddles with her legal team led by attorney Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts) and editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). An opportunity to get their hands on an additional copy of the Pentagon Papers emerges when assistant editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odendirk) tracks down his old buddy Ellsberg who is holed up in a hotel room with stacks of copied files. Graham enters into to the fray when the Times receives a federal court injunction to cease and desist from publishing their story. As the Post has been Kay’s entire life since her husband’s suicide and the company’s listing on the American Stock Exchange will give the paper enduring solvency, she must make a hard decision: publish the story and risk federal charges of espionage or suppress it and keep on struggling. In spite of legal advice from her attorney Roger Clark (Jesse Plemons) countered by the persistence of Bradlee to let the truth be known, the outcome remains in doubt until the United States Supreme Court rules on this landmark case.
Director Steven Spielberg applies his magic touch to a great script provided by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer replete with credible if imagined dialogue between master class actors Streep and Hanks. At every level, including the fine support by Sarah Paulson as Ben’s long-suffering wife Tony, Allison Brie as Kay’s daughter Lally, and Carrie Coon as Post reporter Meg Greenfield, this huge cast is simply magnificent as it takes yesterday’s true story and makes it relevant for today’s audiences. All the President’s Men, first screened over 40 years ago, was the best and most suspenseful account of a real newspaper story that rocked the nation. The Post is the story before that story and every bit as impactful. Perhaps the Watergate foreshadowing before the final credits run is a bit heavy-handed and perhaps Streep’s impersonation appears slightly disingenuous but that aside, this is a film that is Oscar-worthy from the beginning. Highest recommendation.
The Post is in theaters January 12, 2018
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