2017 was a good year for cinema. Among the nine films nominated for Best Picture almost all, barring the unnecessarily long Dunkirk, are special in their particular ways. Each of these films is distinctive in style, guided by the voices of their directors who want to push the boundaries of what can be done on film.
Steven Spielberg’s The Post is probably one of the most conventional of the films nominated this past year. Fortunately, it is so strong in its subject matter and in the force of the actors who guide the story that the film excels in its own right, even while it did not win the coveted golden statue.
Starring the great Meryl Streep and the wonderful Tom Hanks, The Post tells the incredible true story of how The Washington Post threw aside all caution to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, papers that exposed how the White House administrations, extending back to Harry Truman, through to the current administration (at the time) of Richard Nixon had been aware that the Vietnam war was a lost cause. The thousands of pages long, comprehensive report had been commissioned in 1967 by the then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who had held off exposing this dreadful secret that would surely have brought down any sitting president.
After The New York Times is barred by a court injunction from further publishing the strategically leaked papers, The Post’s editor in Chief Ben Bradlee (Hanks) lobbies, hard, for Katherine Graham (Streep), the first female owner of any publication, to allow the paper to publish the hundreds of crucial stories that the report might generate.
This is a story about bravery, and doing what’s right, told without hyperbole, in the most matter of fact, but stirring of ways. Hanks and Streep square off as adversary and confidante, switching back and forth as each struggles with his or her ethics, trying to draw lines about how far they will go to expose the truth or retain their hard won space in the echelons of political society.
There is a particularly riveting line, uttered by the former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (played by another great actor, Matthew Rhys), the original source who leaked the papers to The New York Times, when he says that to accuse a paper of betraying a president and committing crimes against the state is dangerously close to the President saying “I am the state” – a dreadful defaulting on the real tenet of democracy where the state is actually the people, who elect the head of state to represent their best interests. This is particularly prescient in present day America.
There is so much to love about The Post, the performances, the fascinating procedural revelations about how such stories are told by a truly committed media, the will of a woman to do the right thing, the reporters who bite on to the truth like little terriers that won’t let go, and finally the insights into why people are sometimes noble, despite our fears.