TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Steven Spielberg's new drama "The Post" revisits The Washington Post's 1971 decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, in defiance of the Nixon administration. The movie stars Meryl Streep as the newspaper's publisher Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as its editor Ben Bradlee. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "The Post" took Steven Spielberg less than six months to shoot, edit and complete. And you can feel that speed and dynamism in every moment. It's the most invigorating movie he's made in years. Many will tell you that it's also the most important movie he's made in years, which is true enough. But it has none of the self-conscious weightiness the word importance implies.
A crackling newsroom thriller that plays like an over-caffeinated prequel to "All The President's Men," it moves like a shot, bringing history into an electrifying present tense. Only an inattentive viewer could miss its lessons about the necessity of a free press in holding our elected officials to account. But the movie never feels embalmed in its own relevance. It may not be as detailed or illuminating a portrait of the Fourth Estate as either "All The President's Men" or "Spotlight," but it's a terrifically entertaining one nonetheless.
The film originated as a spec script by Liz Hannah and was then reworked by Josh Singer, one of the Oscar-winning writers on "Spotlight." At the heart of their story is one woman's journey from nervous hesitation to fierce resolve. The Washington Post's publisher Katharine Graham, played by Meryl Streep, is about to take her company public when the New York Times begins publishing excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, a top secret Department of Defense study on the U.S.'s involvement in Vietnam. Among other things, the study reveals that the government knew for years that the Vietnam War was unwinnable but kept sending troops overseas anyway.
President Nixon, whose actual voice we hear in recorded phone conversations, obtains a federal court injunction ordering the Times to cease publication of the damning documents. But when Daniel Ellsberg leaks the study to a dogged Post reporter named Ben Bagdikian, wonderfully played by Bob Odenkirk, the newspaper has a major publish-or-perish dilemma on its hands. Like Spielberg's earlier historical dramas "Lincoln" and "Bridge Of Spies," "The Post" turns the art of negotiation into gripping cinema. It's about the tactical risks and compromises by which our republic survives.
Historians may well take "The Post" to task for not including more perspective from the Times, which broke the story in the first place. But the film's limited focus feels both deliberate and dramatically potent. This is a classic underdog saga about how a newspaper that had little of the Times's national clout ultimately seized its moment and scored a major victory for journalists everywhere. It's also a fascinating portrait of the respectful but combative relationship between Graham and the Post's hard-headed editor Ben Bradlee, played with irascible glee by Tom Hanks.
We never completely forget that we're watching two of the biggest movie stars in the world, but that only increases their characters' dramatic stature. In an early scene, Bradlee presses Graham about whether her friendship with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara might be negatively impacting her judgment.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POST")
TOM HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) So can I ask you a hypothetical question?
MERYL STREEP: (As Kay Graham) Oh, dear, I don't like hypothetical questions.
HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) Well, I don't think you're going to like the real one either.
STREEP: (As Kay Graham) Do you have the papers?
HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) Not yet.
STREEP: (As Kay Graham) Oh, gosh. Oh, gosh. Because you know the position that would put me in. You know we have language in the prospectus.
HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) I know. I know that the bankers can change their mind. That's - and I know what is at stake. You know, the only couple I knew that both Kennedy and LBJ wanted to socialize with was you and your husband, and you own the damn paper. It was just the way things worked. Politicians and the press, they trusted each other so they could go to the same dinner party and drink cocktails and tell jokes while there was a war raging in Vietnam.
STREEP: (As Kay Graham) I don't know what we're talking about. I'm not protecting Lyndon.
HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) No. You got his former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara - the man who commissioned this study. He's one of about a dozen...
STREEP: (As Kay Graham) I'm not protecting him...
HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) ...Out on your patio.
STREEP: (As Kay Graham) I'm not protecting any of them. I'm protecting the paper.
CHANG: At this point, praising a Meryl Streep performance feels like something of a Pavlovian response for critics. She acts; we rave. But even by her lofty standards, this is quietly superior work. It may be her richest performance since she took on a very different journalistic power player in "The Devil Wears Prada." Graham titled her 1997 memoir "Personal History," and Streep's every expression alludes to that history - the tragedy of her husband Philip's suicide and the enormous weight of inheriting a newspaper that Philip and her father had owned before her.
In a movie calculated to capture the mood of the moment, it's thrilling to watch Graham, initially feeling out of her depth in a boardroom full of men, evolve into a leader in full fearless command of her company. There's terrific acting everywhere you look in "The Post," from Bruce Greenwood as the embattled McNamara, from Tracy Letts as "The Post's" chairman of the board, Fritz Beebe, and from Jesse Plemons as the corporate attorney who tries to dissuade them from rushing to publish.
The performances mesh beautifully with the energy of Spielberg's filmmaking. He sends his camera racing past cubicles and filing cabinets, capturing the adrenalized pulse of a newsroom firing on all cylinders even as it stares down a looming existential threat. The details here are enough to make newspaper lovers swoon. Spielberg lingers lovingly on the side of reporters banging away on manual typewriters, a copy editor crossing out lines with pencil, a front page being composed on a linotype machine. These may be relics of a glorious journalistic past. But as the sweep and urgency of "The Post" reminds us, the business of speaking truth to power continues.
GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for The LA Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Robert Siegel who has been hosting All Things Considered for 30 years and will be retiring in January. We'll look back on his radio career and hear how he sounded on his first NPR broadcast in 1976. And our TV critic David Bianculli will talk about his picks for the best TV shows of the year. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF DENIS GABEL'S "LE MANS")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF DENIS GABEL'S "LE MANS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.