Set in the early 1970’s during a time of growing anger at America’s continued involvement in the Vietnam War, Steven Spielberg’s latest doesn’t focus on the conflict itself, instead shining some light on the machinations behind the scenes; the deceit and dishonesty by the Government in relation to how, and why, decisions were made and the misinformation that was fed to the media in the interests of misleading the American public. It is hardly surprising that efforts were made to prevent the news media from publishing excerpts from the classified report – dubbed The Pentagon Papers – given it reveals that the administrations of several Presidents knew that America was losing the war and to keep sending troops was a folly from which the only certainty seemed to be the unnecessary death of US soldiers. Extensive excerpts from the report were initially published in The New York Times and subsequently in The Washington Post (hence the title), detailing the lies told to the American populous about US military involvement in, not only Vietnam, but across entire Indochina region since the 1940’s.
The crux of the story lies in the dilemma facing Washington Post publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) with regard to whether or not she should allow her editor Tony Bradlee (Tom Hanks) to print extracts from the documents in the face of a court ruling that prohibits the New York Times from doing exactly that. Whilst Bradlee argues that they should be able to publish the information because the public has a ‘right to know’, he is also acutely aware that this is an opportunity for his paper to gain credibility and emerge from the shadows of more highly-regarded publications. Undermined by the men who refuse to take her seriously, Graham is faced with a decision that could, in addition to the significant political ramifications, have serious implications for the future of the paper and her close friendship with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the man responsible for many of the findings outlined in the documents. Despite subject matter that seems ideal for dramatic exploration, The Post is surprisingly dull, both in its exploration of the story and the characterisation of the key players.
Hanks’ performance makes Bradlee seem more like a cartoonish version of such a character – Perry White or J. Jonah Jamieson, for example – rather than somebody we can take seriously. Streep, meanwhile, also fails to convince as a woman who, in theory at least, is breaking new ground in a traditionally male-centric environment, yet struggles to assert her authority, with Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whiford) particularly hostile in his resentment towards her. The terrific supporting cast also includes Matthew Rhys as whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and Bob Odenkirk as the journalist who tracks him down (as easy as a couple of phone calls, apparently), along with Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson and Alison Brie, although none of these women have roles befitting their considerable talents, which is more to do with the rampant sexism and misogynistic attitudes of the time, rather than any failings of the filmmakers.
A limp screenplay ensures that neither Hanks nor Streep are anywhere near their best here and The Post falls somewhat short in comparison to other films of this ilk – such as All the President’s Men or the recent Spotlight, for example – and whilst, as some have said, it might be Spielberg’s best film for some time, it pales in comparison to his greatest achievements. Despite subject matter (freedom of speech, government accountability) that is extremely relevant at the moment in light of the current political climate in America (and elsewhere), The Post somehow fails to resonate in any meaningful way and, rather than leave you pondering the complexities of the debate around free speech and freedom of the press, it is very unlikely that any of what transpires will remain in your consciousness beyond the time it takes you to get home from the cinema.