January 18, 2018

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Spielberg's newspaper drama a romanticized but entertaining look at journalism

Newspaper readers who pine for the good ol’ days of journalism will get a kick out of The Post, an overly romanticized view of the industry and one of its standard bearers, the Washington Post.

The film, directed by Steven Spielberg and set in 1971, has the incessant clack-clack of typewriters pounded by hard-working reporters, ink-stained linotype operators setting the day’s news into hot lead and thousands of papers whizzing by on the press, all done to a heart-racing John Williams score that marches to the beat of stacks of papers hitting the pavement.

There’s even a famous story to chase: the Pentagon Papers, top-secret documents whisked out of government filing cabinets in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg, a former war analyst who has had enough of American officials lying about the Vietnam War.

While the pursuit of a big story generates the excitement and nostalgia in The Post, it becomes the backdrop to the big decisions the newspaper’s publisher, Katharine (Kay) Graham (Meryl Streep), has to make on whether to run the story.

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Newspaper readers who pine for the good ol’ days of journalism will get a kick out of The Post, an overly romanticized view of the industry and one of its standard bearers, the Washington Post.

The film, directed by Steven Spielberg and set in 1971, has the incessant clack-clack of typewriters pounded by hard-working reporters, ink-stained linotype operators setting the day’s news into hot lead and thousands of papers whizzing by on the press, all done to a heart-racing John Williams score that marches to the beat of stacks of papers hitting the pavement.

There’s even a famous story to chase: the Pentagon Papers, top-secret documents whisked out of government filing cabinets in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg, a former war analyst who has had enough of American officials lying about the Vietnam War.

While the pursuit of a big story generates the excitement and nostalgia in The Post, it becomes the backdrop to the big decisions the newspaper’s publisher, Katharine (Kay) Graham (Meryl Streep), has to make on whether to run the story.

She also must decide on her role in life — continue being one of Washington’s key socialites or begin taking control of the corporate reins of her company, left to her after her husband’s suicide in 1963.

Pushing her on to make those decisions is intimidating executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), who rankles at the Postplaying second fiddle to the New York Times, especially when the Gray Lady scoops everyone by publishing details from the Pentagon Papers.

Tom Hanks (as Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (as Kay Graham). (Niko Tavernise photo)</p></p>

Tom Hanks (as Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (as Kay Graham). (Niko Tavernise photo)

When a second copy of the Papers lands in the Washington Post’s lap, Bradlee urges his reporters, writers and editors on despite a court injunction that has halted the Times’ stories.

Whether to publish the stories in defiance of the injunction becomes Graham’s dilemma: Run them and lift the paper’s journalistic reputation or face contempt-of-court charges that threaten the future of her family’s business.

As much as Graham and Bradlee were newspaper superstars in the U.S., casting Hollywood legends Streep and Hanks proves to be a detriment. Hanks was able to do this in Spielberg’s previous historical drama, Bridge of Spies, and Streep has done it countless times during her storied career. In The Post, though, their presence often overwhelms the characters they play.

It makes you wonder what Spielberg could do without his access to the A-list of Hollywood’s A-list. It shows in the excellent supporting cast, especially Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) as Post reporter Ben Bagdikian, who works the phones to hunt down a paranoid Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys of The Americans).

The result is such a nostalgic, romantic view of the newspaper business that it makes you wonder where the love for newspapers has gone all these years later.

So many of Spielberg’s films, be they thrillers such as the Raiders of the Lost Ark or the director’s masterpiece, Schindler’s List, focus on an individual’s battle against the government colossus. The Post follows suit, as the power brokers on the Washington Post’s board keep warning Graham that she is no match for a vindictive president Richard Nixon and his plumbers.

But like all those other Spielberg protagonists, Graham, egged on by Bradlee, decides to fight back against the White House and corporate sexism the best way she knows how.

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @AlanDSmall

Read more by Alan Small .

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