Film of the week: The Post

Still from The Post
A new and unfamiliar twist on the history of the Vietnam War

The Post
Directed by Steven Spielberg
DVD, £8.95
(Buy at Amazon)

There are plenty of films about heroic whistleblowers or fearless journalists, but few about business leaders who put principle above profit. The protagonist of The Post, directed by Steven Spielberg, is Katharine Graham, the owner of The Washington Post.

Played by Meryl Streep, Graham attempts to turn around the fortunes of the ailing publication by floating it on the stock exchange in order to raise money for overdue investment. The problem is that as a woman in a man’s world, she isn’t taken seriously by the bankers or her advisers.

Shortly after her company goes public, Graham is confronted with a huge dilemma. The Nixon administration has served The New York Times with an injunction designed to prevent the publication of a leaked copy of the Ellsberg Papers, which reveal that successive governments have been lying about the US army’s odds of success in Vietnam.

However, thanks to some smart detective work, editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) has managed to track down Ellsberg, who provides another copy of the report. Naturally, Bradlee is eager for the Post to go to print, both to defend free speech, but also to demonstrate that it is a serious rival to The New York Times.

Graham’s advisers, however, are strongly opposed to getting involved, arguing that the bankers could use it as an excuse to pull out of the offering, while she and the entire editorial team could end up in jail for contempt of court.

To make matters worse, the revelations would ruin the reputation of her close friend Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), a former secretary of defence. Will Graham be willing to sacrifice friendship, her position as a Washington insider, and possibly the financial future of her paper (since the bankers are threatening to pull out) to reveal the truth and preserve a free press?

Even if you don’t know much about American history, neither Graham’s decision, nor the overall outcome, is ever in doubt from the start. It’s also hard to argue that Graham was as courageous as Ellsberg, who eventually ended up facing criminal charges, or as quick-witted as Bradlee, who managed to gather a team to pick out the juiciest bits of a multi-volume report in a single afternoon. But Spielberg still does a good job of building up the tension. There is also an interesting snippet about the US newspaper industry: Graham notes that The New York Times’s financial firepower stems from its local monopoly.

Overall, The Post is a strong, entertaining historical drama that delivers a new and unfamiliar twist on the history of the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration. It’s easy to see why the film was nominated for Best Picture and Streep for Best Actress.