It’s part spy story, with furtive phone calls placed to secretive sources and clandestine meetings held in dark rooms where Top Secret documents are displayed to eager, covetous eyes.
It’s part newsroom drama, with reporters frantically pounding away at keyboards while the deadline clock ticks and the presses wait impatiently to roll.
It’s to a large degree a tale with a strong feminist bent, chronicling a woman finding her way to asserting power in the pressure-cooker environment of a male-dominated world.
And arguably most importantly, though set 46 years in the past, it’s a movie whose theme and message are more relevant and resonant today than at any time in the past four-plus decades as it dramatizes a crucial real-life battle between a vengeful, authoritarian president and a free press.
It’s “The Post,” Steven Spielberg’s gripping re-creation of the events surrounding the publication of the Pentagon Papers by The Washington Post and The New York Times, the latter being the first paper to break the story in 1971.
The papers are 7,000 pages of a classified study commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) into the history of America’s involvement in Vietnam.
They revealed that the reasons put forth by administrations from Truman to Eisenhower to JFK and LBJ were essentially lies and half-truths covering up the growing realization that the Vietnam War was unwinnable.
Secretly photocopied by whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) and leaked to The New York Times, the papers set off a political firestorm when published.
Publication also caught every other newspaper in the country, particularly The Washington Post, flat-footed. No dedicated journalist likes to be scoped, and that was particularly true of The Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee.
Tom Hanks brings rare relish to his portrayal of Bradlee as a voluble hard-charger: ferocious in his zeal to break a hot story and uncaring about what toes he has to step on to get it.
That attitude gives heartburn to The Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep). Graham IS the pivotal figure in the story. She had no background in journalism when her publisher husband Philip Graham committed suicide in 1963, and control of the paper fell to her. She’s the lone woman in the executive suite and in the newsroom, viewed with skepticism at best and condescension at worst by men in the boardroom and the newsroom.
Streep does remarkable work showing a woman fighting to find her footing and to define herself in an age of nascent feminism, beset by self-doubt and slowly coming into her own as a force to be reckoned with.
With her paper in precarious financial straits and desperately in need of cash from a stock offering, the last thing she needs is to cross swords with the Nixon administration. The president is livid over publication of the papers, which The Post runs after The Times is legally enjoined from further publication of the material.
Graham not only faces the financial ruin of the paper, she also faces, as does Bradlee, the prospect of prison for publishing government secrets.
The interplay between Hanks’ brash and blustering Bradlee and Streep’s reserved and conflicted Graham is the heart of the movie.
Other cast standouts are Bob Odenkirk playing reporter Ben Bagdikian, a classic shoe-leather newsman who tracks down the secretive Ellsberg and Greenwood, playing McNamara, whose longtime friendship with Graham adds to the agony of her decision to publish.
The parallels between the efforts of Nixon to fight and demonize The Post and The Times — efforts ultimately thwarted by a 6-3 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the papers’ First Amendment right to publish — and President Donald Trump’s declarations that the press is his enemy couldn’t be clearer.
History, it seems, repeats itself, with the outcome this time as yet unknown.
☆☆☆ 1/2 out of 4
Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running time: 1:55
Rated: PG-13 for language and brief war violence.