By MANOHLA DARGIS
Steven Spielberg’s exhilarating drama “The Post” is about a subject that’s dear to the heart of journalists: themselves! Set largely during a few anxious weeks in 1971, it revisits The Washington Post’s decision to publish portions of the Pentagon Papers, an immense classified report that chronicled America’s involvement in Southeast Asia from World War II to 1968. In Mr. Spielberg’s hands, that decision becomes a ticktock thriller about the freedom of the press, the White House’s war on that constitutional right and the middle-aged woman who defended freedom in a fabulous gold caftan.
The real story began with Daniel Ellsberg, the Marine turned government researcher turned clandestine peacenik who first gave the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. The Times began running portions on June 13, 1971. After the attorney general, John Mitchell, accused The Times of violating the Espionage Act, a judge ordered it to stop publishing the papers. At a pivotal time in American history, the government was preventing the press from getting the news out, on the grounds that it would do injury to national security. Shortly thereafter, The Post, which had been publishing rewrites of The Times’s articles, began running its own excerpts, becoming part of a Supreme Court showdown over the First Amendment.
The Pentagon Papers give “The Post” its heft and pulse; the antagonism between the government and the media gives it a shiver of topicality. Even so, shaping a drama around a newspaper that didn’t break the story seems an odd path to Hollywood triumphalism, though the scrappy Post was itching to be a national player. There’s also the matter of the actual import of the Pentagon Papers. In his memoir, Ben Bradlee, The Post’s longtime editor — winningly played by Tom Hanks with macho suavity and an on-and-off Boston accent — devotes four times as much space to Watergate (a story that his paper did break) as to the Pentagon Papers. Except that “The Post” cares less about the hard-charging Bradlee than it does his boss, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the paper’s late-blooming publisher.
The story opens in 1966 with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a government analyst on a data-mining mission in Vietnam, pecking out reports on his portable typewriter amid exploding bombs and flowing blood. The secretary of defense, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood, wearing a frozen smile and an oil slick of hair), thinks the war is going badly but grossly mischaracterizes American progress to journalists. Disillusioned with the official script, Daniel eventually goes cloak-and-dagger rogue and is on his way to publicizing the Pentagon Papers, a momentous decision that Mr. Spielberg enlivens with spooky shadows and what may be the most nervous-making photocopying in film history.
The story soon jumps to Katharine, jolting out of a slumber, a sly preview of larger awakenings to come, both her own and that of the country. She’s about to take her company public, a move that she and a close adviser (Tracy Letts, wry and tart) hope will financially stabilize it. During the week that this business is finalized, though, the company will be temporarily vulnerable to its underwriters. The stock offering, Graham writes in her memoir, was scheduled for June 15. Two days, later, The Post had the Pentagon Papers. What happened next is a matter of record, history being the ultimate spoiler. The pleasure of “The Post” is how it sweeps you up in how it all went down.
Mostly, it went down fast, a pace that Mr. Spielberg conveys with accelerated rhythms, flying feet, racing cameras and an enjoyably loose approach to the material. With his virtuosic, veteran crew, Mr. Spielberg paints the scene vividly and with daubs of beauty; most notably, he creates distinct visual realms for the story’s two main overlapping, at times colliding worlds. Katharine reigns over one; at first she’s all but entombed in her darkly lighted, wood-paneled empire. Ben rules the other, overseeing the talking and typing warriors of the glaring, noisily freewheeling newsroom. (The costume designer Ann Roth subtly brightens Katharine, taking her from leaden gray to free-flowing gold.)
Just as Daniel will come into consciousness so will Katharine, a twinned metamorphosis that, in turn, speaks to the larger cultural and social changes shaking the country. Time and again, men crowd over and around Katharine, walking in front of her, speaking for her. As the drama heats up, the typewriters furiously clack — and the political becomes increasingly personal, and the personal turns political — Katharine finds both a new purpose and identity. With small tilts of her head, darting looks, nervous flutters and a Brahmin imperiousness that gradually eases and warms, Ms. Streep creates an acutely moving portrait of a woman who in liberating herself helps instigate a revolution.
Like many movies that turn the past into entertainment, “The Post” gently traces the arc of history, while also bending it for dramatic punch and narrative expediency. The filmmakers fold in atmospheric true-to-life details, like the poster for the western film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (a favorite of the real Mr. Ellsberg) that Daniel and some longhair pals sweep past on their way to illegally copying the Pentagon Papers. And while it’s no surprise that the movie omits and elides important players and crucial episodes, its honed focus jibes with the view of the former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, who wrote that the “public disclosure of the Pentagon Papers challenged the core of a president’s power: his role in foreign and national security affairs.”
That challenge becomes the movie’s cri de coeur, its reason for being. And, as that challenge becomes a crusade, it leads to some lump-in-the-throat grandstanding about the press and its relationship to power. Ben and Katharine each have friends in high government places. These allegiances — to friends, to state authority — are tested by the Pentagon Papers, if rather more tested, perhaps, for the purposes of this fiction. Graham’s husband, Phil, and Bradlee were both close with John F. Kennedy. In her memoirs, Graham writes that her friend McNamara helpfully advised The Times on a legally sensitive letter about the Pentagon Papers, a detail that underscores the depth of these powerful allegiances.
The Pentagon Papers — officially titled “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force” — is an encyclopedia of outrageous decisions and acts, what Mr. Ellsberg once described as “evidence of lying, by four presidents and their administrations over twenty-three years, to conceal plans and actions of mass murder.” Mr. Ellsberg didn’t stop the war, but he did assert our right, and obligation, to challenge absolute power. That may be why the filmmakers — the script is by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer — slip in a bit from a speech that Mario Savio delivered two years before “The Post” opens and which memorably asserts: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part!”
There’s more than a little corn and wishful thinking in the high-minded moments in “The Post”; movies like either to glorify or demonize journalists, relying on heroes and villains. Yet given the recent assaults on journalism and the truth, this heroizing is also irresistible. And Mr. Spielberg, a shrewd entertainer who can be waylaid by moralism, rarely lets virtue drag this movie down. He lightens the heaviness with humor, physical comedy (fumbling, stumbling) and a perfectly synced cast that includes the funnymen David Cross, Zach Woods and a terrific Bob Odenkirk. As a filmmaker, Mr. Spielberg invariably comes down on the side of optimism; here, that hopefulness feels right. It also feels like a rallying cry.