‘The Post’ emphasizes importance of a free press

Nick Botkin

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep adorn the poster for "The Post"
Spielberg’s “The Post” examines the ramifications of the Washington Post’s legal battle to publish The Pentagon Papers. (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox).

A president attempts to threaten a newspaper legally. Said president refers to reporters as “bastards.”

This might evoke a certain leader’s “fake news” diatribes.


But these events are part of Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” the true account of the Washington Post’s fight to publish the Pentagon Papers. The papers are hidden accounts of United States military involvement in Vietnam, encompassing four presidencies. The accounts were compiled by a task force at the request of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Spielberg’s movie opens on Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. Ellsberg is compiling his observations of the war. The opening offers dark shots of weary soldiers and rapidly piling body bags. On the flight home from Vietnam, Ellsberg and McNamara discuss the situation and its ramifications. McNamara laments that the cause is lost. Several years later, Ellsberg leaks photocopies of the so-called papers to the New York Times, a prelude to the impending action.

The heart of the action takes place at the Washington Post. It is now 1971. Katherine Graham, played by Meryl Streep, is the present owner. Ben Bradlee, portrayed by Tom Hanks, is editor in chief. The two offer delightful contrasts in character. Bradlee is full of high-octane energy and not deterred by boundaries.

“The only way to protect the right to publish is to publish,” Bradlee proclaims, drawing clear parallels to the present political climate.

Graham, on the other hand, is far more pragmatic. She must navigate the Post’s precarious financial situation, as well as her own position as a female executive.

Robert McNamara, also a personal friend of Graham’s, warns her of an impending expose in the New York Times. The expose is none other than the hidden accounts of the United States’ activity in Vietnam. However, the series of articles are curbed by an injunction, at President Nixon’s own request.

Bradlee decides to take advantage of the moment and gain the upper hand. The assistant editor Ben Bagdikian locates Ellsberg. Ellsberg, in turn, provides the Post with copies of the materials he leaked to the Times. The Post’s team literally pieces together the story from immense documents.

Of course, access to the material gives rise to ethical and practical concerns: Should the paper publish the materials? What are the legal ramifications for the paper? For the nation? 

The film fleshes out these dilemmas fully. In particular, the legal battles and Supreme Court decision scene will  manipulate you emotionally, along with shots of Nixon in a darkened West Wing. One cannot help but be frightened as Nixon inveighs against the Post and Times reporters, weighing dictatorial options.

One of the movie’s other significant strengths is its exploration of journalistic ethics. It tackles the media’s relationship with political powerbrokers, in particular, Graham’s friendship with McNamara. Graham is torn between friendship and professionalism and Streep portrays Graham’s dilemma with significant pathos.


Should you see this movie? Absolutely. 

Bradlee also notes that the media must be a check on the presidency and its power.

“The days of smoking cigars on Pennsylvania Avenue are over,” Bradlee says.

The ending itself hints at an even darker scandal. The conclusion is a nice twist, but more importantly a clarion call to the viewer, a reminder of our vulnerability.

Director: Steven Spielberg

Genre: Drama

Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys

Release date:  Jan 12, 2018

Running time: 116 minutes

Fun Fact: According to IMDB, in scenes involving the Pentagon Papers, the real-life Daniel Ellsberg‘s original documents were used as props, including the pages that were scattered over the floor of Benjamin C. Bradlee’s home

Now playing at: Cinemark Bistro and XD, AMC Classic Fort Collins 10, Cinemark Fort Collins 16

Collegian reporter Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @dudesosad.