‘The Post” is an old-fashioned star-studded Hollywood civics lesson, the kind the studios turned out to great success in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. It’s also a movie about the newspaper business. That makes it a dinosaur about a dinosaur. But if there’s one thing Steven Spielberg knows, it’s dinosaurs.
Accordingly, “The Post” is grand, thoughtful entertainment and it happily sells us a message — a free press is necessary to the healthy functioning of any democracy — that is never not relevant and never so much as now, when the holder of the highest office in the land throws down daily Twitterbolts against the Fourth Estate.
You would think that a drama about the Pentagon Papers — the 47-volume Department of Defense (DoD) study on the Vietnam War that was leaked to the press in 1971 — would be enough for one movie, especially with Tom Hanks playing legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and a gallery of great character actors as his staff. But “The Post” is also, and mostly to its credit, the story of how the paper’s owner and publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) transformed from an untested socialite to a hard-nosed newswoman against the expectations of everyone around her, including herself.
That double-barreled narrative structure might trip up most moviemakers, but Spielberg isn’t most moviemakers. He easily finesses the complexities of the script by first-time feature writer Liz Hannah (who was inspired by Graham’s best-selling 1997 memoir) and old hand Josh Singer (“Spotlight”), and he ladles on the emotional flashpoints and democratic idealism, daring you to call it corn. This is Spielberg back in “Lincoln” territory, making historical figures more mythic by making them seem more human.
The film begins in the jungles of Vietnam, where Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys of TV’s “The Americans”) is a DoD observer to the carnage and chaos, then leaps back to the United States as Ellsberg makes the decision to steal the Papers from his post at the Rand Corporation and leak them to The New York Times. The pushback from the Nixon White House was immediate; the Times was enjoined from publishing any further extracts. Would other newspapers pick up the slack? That’s the motor of the movie.
Or one of them. “The Post” is slyly funny about the rivalries and grudging camaraderie of the newspaper business, with the underdog Bradlee itching to scoop his colleagues at the august Times. He sends his minions out to find their own copy of the Pentagon Papers, and one of the movie’s most felicitous tangents involves a reporter named Ben Bagdikian — played by Bob Odenkirk of “Better Call Saul” with the face and attitude of a funeral director — ferreting out his old friend Ellsberg in time-honored fashion, through cold calls and shoe leather.
Odenkirk’s “Mr. Show” partner, David Cross, can be glimpsed as fellow ink-stained wretch Howard Simons, as can Carrie Coon (“The Leftovers”) as columnist Meg Greenfield; the lesser-known actors surrounding them are cast for their newsroom mugs and air of jaded decency, and Hanks as Bradlee is amusingly crass and canny, if the possessor of a Boston Brahmin accent that would fool nobody. (He also doesn’t make you forget Jason Robards Jr.’s portrayal of Bradlee in “All The President’s Men,” but I’m not sure he even wants to.)
The men clustered around the neophyte publisher — and it says much that they are all men — are a tougher bunch: board members like Arthur Parsons (a composite character played by Bradley Whitford, who’s a ringer here for Claude Rains in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”), the Post’s lawyers led by Roger Clark (Jesse Plemons), rival newspaper barons like Abe Rosenthal of the Times (Michael Stuhlbarg), confidantes like Fritz Beebe (a wonderfully poker-faced Tracy Letts). Further off but still close to home is Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), a long-time friend of Graham’s who’s also the Secretary of Defense and the man who ordered the Pentagon Papers to be secretly written when it became clear how early it was known the war could never be won.
Nixon is a shadowy figure seen through curtains — and hauntingly voiced by the man himself, taken from those damning tapes — but McNamara is the closer quandary. “The Post” presents this as both a covert class war and a personal crisis, with Graham called away from hosting parties of the Washington elite (including her good friend Bob) to wrangle with Bradlee over the decision to run the story. The daughter of the Post’s late owner and widow of its most recent publisher, she has to decide whether she has the spine to go against the advice of everyone in the executive offices (as opposed to the newsroom) and publish the Papers after the Times is served with an injunction.
The moral is as simple as it gets — the public has a right to know — and it goes all the way up to the Supreme Court. “The Post” has its moments of High Spielberg Overkill, including a John Williams score that lays it on thick. If Streep effortlessly conveys her character’s growing sense of mission (and the courage to see it through), the actress’s mannerisms — that hesitant hiccup in her line delivery, the flutter of the hands, the darting glances — are starting to define her more than ever.
And sometimes the overkill still works, as in a wordless shot of Graham descending the steps of the Supreme Court before a watching throng that you suddenly realize is made up almost entirely of young women, as if 1971 had suddenly folded onto the new millennium and an influential pioneer and mother of a cultural moment were being celebrated. As a movie, “The Post” is engrossing and enjoyable, if falling slightly short of “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight.” As a period piece, it couldn’t feel more eerily of the moment.
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. Starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys. At Boston Common and Kendall Square. 115 minutes. PG-13 (language, brief war violence).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.