The Post promised a gripping account of a tumultuous historical moment told by a star-studded cast. As a sucker for historical docudrama and anything with Meryl Streep, I waited anxiously for its release. One of the first scenes seemed to validate my anticipation: three people worked clandestinely to copy and liberate government files, clearly at great personal risk. This, the sense of real fear and urgency in revealing government secrets, was what I was here for. Unfortunately, this early episode was one of the few truly great moments, and my anticipation of an instant classic in the genre was unwarranted.
In the early 1970s, the New York Times began exposing the content of the Pentagon Papers and was subsequently sued by the federal government when they refused to cease doing so. The Washington Post, at this point a small family paper, gets its hands on the Pentagon Papers, and must make a choice about whether to go to press with them.
The story itself is gripping and historically significant, particularly in our era of political unrest. Though you know perfectly well that the Washington Post will eventually publish the papers and go on to become more than a local family paper, the storytelling and acting are so engaging that you still want to watch it all play out.
Streep’s performance as Katherine “Kay” Graham, the publisher of the Post, presents a character grappling with self-doubt as she tries to save her family’s paper. The character provides a compelling shift from her usual, self-assured roles. Kay’s growth from a timid to authoritative force in her business might seem sudden, but Streep’s expert negotiation of that transition is a joy. If nothing else compels you to see this film, let this be the reason.
The Post is timely: in a world where media is constantly under fire from government officials and attempts at censorship are hardly far-fetched, it resonates with the audience, pointing to a time in our nation’s not-so-distant past where the role and responsibility of the media came into question and, thankfully, emerged stronger.
Even with these strengths and the high production value, I am not sure I would see it again. The movie’s historical inaccuracy was hard to get over, particularly in the weight given to Streep’s character over the actual whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), who is rarely present in the film. Granted, the publisher took a risk in publishing the papers. But the focus on this resulted in the near exclusion of the man who risked his life to get the papers and felt disingenuous, like a cheapening of what was a monumental story. Though the storytelling was generally good at creating a consistent narrative and giving the viewer all the necessary information to appreciate what was going on, the way in which conflict and suspense were presented differed from that of other truly gripping newsroom docudramas like Spotlight — here, they somehow always seemed a bit hollow. What makes a historical docudrama worth a second (or third, or more) view is its ability to create real tension and danger despite our knowledge of how it resolves, and The Post did not do that for me.
The verdict: worth a watch, but not a re-watch.