The Post, directed by Steven Spielberg, is less enjoyable than 2015's Spotlight in much the same way that this year's The Darkest Hour was less enjoyable than Dunkirk. Both The Post and The Darkest Hour tell behind-the-scenes stories that often feel like half of a really great movie. But in the end, it's not soldiers escaping the beach in The Darkest Hour; it's stuffy members of parliament making speeches about them. It's not reporters digging through files, coaxing sources, and stumbling upon major breaks in The Post; it's corporate trustees talking about the financial ramifications of printing controversial material.
It opens Friday, and you can sleep soundly in the knowledge that despite The Post's inherent narrative flaws, it's a Spielberg flick. And Spielberg knows every trick in the book. As Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks — together for the first time! — embody their roles as legendary Washington Post publisher Kay Graham and editor Ben Bradlee (note: Streep is far more adept than Hanks), and as composer John Williams rouses his string section during moments both pivotal and not-that-pivotal, and as, for example, women in their secretarial finest convene outside a federal courthouse to pay homage to a trailblazing female executive, you sense that you're watching an authoritative document of American history.
As history, the film is a much better portrait of a trailblazing female executive than it is of journalism. The news story at its heart is the leak of the Pentagon Papers. Leaker Daniel Ellsburg covertly printed thousands of pages of Vietnam War files from the Rand Corporation, files that showed how the United States government systematically lied to Congress and to the public about its activities in Southeast Asia, including the broad and merciless bombing of Laos and Cambodia, which was at that time unreported in the mainstream.
Bradlee and his news team — a ragtag crew played by the likes of Bob Odenkirk, Carrie Coons and David Cross — want to get their hands on the documents and print them, even as The New York Times is being sued for doing so by the feds. Meantime, newly widowed Kay Graham (Streep) finds herself in charge of the Washington Post and preparing for its IPO. The paper's exclusively white male board of trustees, whose members treat Ms. Graham with paternal forbearance, are certain that an editorial controversy and a federal lawsuit will spell disaster for the paper's finances. To say nothing of its reputation.
Ethical dilemmas and very important phone calls ensue.
Taking place immediately before the Watergate scandal for which the Washington Post would ultimately become most famous — captured in the 1976 Alan J. Pakula film All the President's Men — Spielberg's The Post is a sort of origin story. It shows one of the nation's great papers evolving from a metro daily into a major national watchdog.
But it also shows the value of Graham's leadership. Graham wasn't even a character in All the President's Men, it's worth noting, and it is right and just that she be properly restored to history via the cinema. The film's strongest moments — this should come as little surprise — are courtesy of Streep herself. In her steely defiance of, and sometimes bemusement with, the paper's board of trustees; in the quiet, uncertain moments she shares with her daughter (Alison Brie); in the glances and words she imparts upon a generation of young women — she is an icon worth emulating.
And though it's superfluous to mention, Streep can count on an Academy Award nomination.