Like a reporter working on deadline, Steven Spielberg banged out “The Post” as quickly as possible, taking just nine months from reading the script to its first screenings late last year — about half the time it takes to bring the average picture to the screen.
So why the rush? Especially for a movie about events that transpired in 1971? That’s simple to answer — and an immediate takeaway after seeing the picture.
The story of the Washington Post’s decision to publish stories based on the Pentagon Papers is a tale of the press defying an imperious president determined to crush the press, and it has more than a little resonance today.
The Tweeter-in-Chief screaming “fake news” and railing against the New York Times, the Post and nearly every other media outlet that isn’t Fox News, however, isn’t as gravely serious as the attempt by President Richard Nixon and his gang of criminals to stop the publication of the stories taken from the leaked, top-secret history of the Vietnam War.
That attempt to shut down the press under a claim of national security wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court — the decision in the case is the climax of Spielberg’s ticking-clock style drama. Those of us who took communications law in journalism school know the case and its outcome.
For those who don’t, however, the film is instructional — right down to its quote from Justice Hugo Black’s opinion in the case, a statement, that like the rest of the film strongly resonates today.
Beyond its story, “The Post” is something of a time capsule that, in its attention to detail, shows how newspapers worked before computers invaded newsrooms in the late 1970s, and cellphones became ubiquitous a decade ago.
That means an editor walks through the cluttered room filled with rows of desks dragging behind him a 10-foot long sheet of paper, ripped from the wire service teletype machine, while reporters pound away on manual typewriters and look for pay phones to call sources when they are out of the newsroom.
Then, other editors take the pages of reporters' stories and start editing, drawing lines through phrases and adding the symbols and notations for the typesetters — who we don’t see. The hot type gets arranged as the pages for each day's paper are put together at night. And there’s the classic newspaper film cliche, turned upside down here: A call to "start" rather than "stop" the presses.
Add in its portrayal of publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), who has to decide whether or not to publish the stories and risk the newspaper’s survival and a possible jail stint, and hard-charging editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and “The Post” becomes an instant classic newspaper picture. Look for Streep and Hanks to get Oscar nominations for their performances as well as a best picture nod.
“The Post” joins on the short list of great newspaper pictures 2014’s best picture winner “Spotlight,” the story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church that was co-written by Josh Singer, who is one of the writers of “The Post.”
Like “Spotlight,” “The Post” makes you proud to work for a newspaper, particularly in the current cultural climate.
“The Post” is a perfect movie for today in another way. It can be seen as a prequel — a staple of the superhero/comic book genre. It sets up, in its closing scene, “All The President’s Men,” the 1976 classic that delineates the next, climactic battle between the Post and Nixon.
Bradlee’s a central character in that picture — Jason Robards won the best supporting actor Oscar playing the editor. One of its few flaws, Graham never appears in the movie and is only mentioned in a vulgarity from the mouth of Attorney General John Mitchell.
Vulgarity from a politician? Some things never change.