This is a riveting film, showing how the Washington Post defied a bullying president and exposed the way successive US governments deceived the American people.
It’s set in 1971 but its message – how we need a free press to keep our leaders honest – is strikingly relevant today, with an embattled American president shamelessly attacking the media.
Director Steven Spielberg has excelled himself in creating a rip-roaring suspense thriller out of the complex story of how Post proprietor Katharine Graham risked imprisonment and ruin to publish the leaked ‘Pentagon Papers.’
Graham (Meryl Streep at her finest) was wealthy and well-connected but lacking in confidence when she was suddenly thrust into the male-dominated business world after her husband’s suicide.
The Post, under its legendary editor Ben Bradlee (a fiery Tom Hanks), had got hold of 4000 pages of a secret government report and was itching to publish the contents.
The report, tagged the Pentagon Papers, revealed how presidents as far back as Eisenhower had lied to the public about Vietnam, sending tens of thousands of young Americans to die in a war they knew was unwinnable.
But Richard Nixon’s lawyers had already persuded the court to issue an injunction to stop the New York Times – or anyone else – from publishing the report, claiming this would threaten national security.
The Post’s lawyers warned Bradlee and Graham they faced jail for contempt if they published in defiance of the court order.
Graham faced the threat of financial ruin and public humiliation.
She was a woman of her time, accustomed to leaving decisions to men, to having her own opinions belittled, to doubting her own ability.
As a close friend of Defence Secretary Robert McNamara, who had commissioned the red-hot report which laid bare the real cost of Vietnam, in publishing, she risked alienating powerful political pals.
The film starts with a harrowing scene of American troops on patrol in the Vietnam jungle.
Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a veteran working as a military analyst, is shocked at the contrast between the reality of the disastrous war and the fake confidence projected to the public by McNamara (Bruce Greenwood).
Ellsberg secretly copies McNamara’s report and leaks it.
Bradlee sets national editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) to track down the source of the leak.
Bagdikian gets the documents, and Bradlee confronts a wavering Graham: will she publish or bow to government threats?
Spielberg, with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and costume designer Ann Roth, brilliantly captures the flavour of the pre-digital newspaper world: the pressure and the excitement of the newsroom; the clanking linotype machines; the huge rolling presses; the delivery men hurling stacks of papers into trucks.
It’s enough to cause a lump in the throat for any old-school journalist.
The Post, written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, is a film which resonates in today’s climate, with its emphasis on a woman finding her place in the world and the media under attack by a ruthless president.
All the performances are excellent, with Streep, Hanks and Odenkirk outstanding.
The Post is now showing at the Windsor Cinema and numerous other cinemas around Perth.
Watch the trailer…