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Sunday, January 14, 2018

"The Post" 2017: Excellent in Every Respect


"The Post" is so darn good I cried tears of joy and applauded as the film ended. I didn't much want to go to "The Post." I knew how The Post's publishing of the Pentagon Papers played out and I assumed the film would create no suspense. Post editor Katherine Graham, played in the film by Meryl Streep, lived in a different world from my own. She was a wealthy heiress who, until her mentally ill and unfaithful husband committed suicide, had never had to work a day in her life. When I used to see Graham on TV, her silk-and-pearls, hoity toity airs and la-dee-da accent, along with her flat affect, repelled me.

Post editor Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, always struck me as an arrogant, swaggering newspaperman, and I didn't want to sit through a movie with him as the lead. Bradlee, like Graham, was also born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was a Boston Brahmin and descendent of royalty. Bradlee's middle name was "Crowninshield."

I thought "The Post" would be one of those fluffy Hollywood exercises in self-congratulation. Aren't we so politically correct. But I loved this movie. My eyes were glued to the screen from the first second to the last. I came to care about and invest in each character. Testimony to the power of Steven Spielberg's filmmaking.

"The Post" is a rich recreation of 1971 America – the cars, the clothes, the music, the speeches. Each character, no matter how minor, is created as three-dimensional. Each significant action, no matter how small, receives focus. One example: The Pentagon Papers were 7000 pages long. How did Daniel Ellsberg, in 1971, manage to smuggle 7000 pages to the press? The film shows the workings of a 1971-era photocopy machine. Copying all the pages took Ellsberg and two friends all night. Later, Post reporters must struggle to piece together these thousands of pages that are not numbered and are not in order.

Personnel at the New York Times have criticized "The Post" as focusing too much on the role of the Washington Post in releasing the Pentagon Papers. The Times was the more important paper, they say. The criticism is unfounded. "The Post" acknowledges that the New York Times was the first to carry the story. It was only after the government stopped the Times' publication of the Papers that the Post picked up the baton.

Rather, "The Post" is Katherine Graham's story. She was a shy and insecure woman who was faced with a decision that rocked her world. She was personal friends with Robert McNamara, mastermind of the Vietnam War. Similarly, Ben Bradlee was friendly with John F. Kennedy, a president who escalated the war. Katherine Graham's son Donald served in Vietnam. Streep's intimate and fully realized performance and Spielberg's virtuosic filmmaking made me feel Graham's turmoil as she contemplated whether or not to publish papers that would change her life in several ways.

The Washington Post had just had an IPO. How would investors react? Given that the court had already shut down the NYT, would she be a felon, and would she be sent to prison? Would she lose the company she had inherited from her father and hoped to pass on to her children? How could she publish such damning material about her personal friend, Robert McNamara? How could her personal friend, McNamara, allow her son to risk his life serving in a war that McNamara knew was unwinnable? Streep's performance allowed me to feel as Graham probably felt, and to care about her.

Every role is excellently cast. Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, a Post editor and survivor of the Armenian Holocaust, is every bit as compelling as the major stars. Sarah Paulson is onscreen only briefly as Bradlee's wife Toni, but she is given a key speech where she articulates for Bradlee – and the viewer – exactly how heroic Graham is being.

I love smart movies and "The Post" bristles with intelligence. I love movies that focus, not on fast cars, explosions, or superheroes, but on people, and "The Post" is one of the most human-centric movies I've seen in a while. "The Post" focuses on people, primarily Katherine Graham, but also Ellsberg, Bradlee, Bagdikian and others. It depicts those people not as plaster saints but warts-and-all. It allows the viewer to get close to those people and to see what they see and to care about what they care about.


It goes without saying that a film that celebrates the search for truth and the freedom of the press, and the heroism of a woman who had been told that she wasn't as good as a man for the job she held, is very timely. 

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