Four decades before Edward Snowden, was leaked Daniel Ellsberg. Two years into Richard Nixon’s presidency, Ellsberg, a former Department of Defense analyst, gave copies of a top-secret study of the Vietnam War to The New York Times, disclosing the administrations’ lies and misleading of the public, secret escalations of the conflict and more. The Department of Justice obtained a restraining order and soon the spotlight shifted to the Washington Post. Steven Spielberg’s film is an often gripping account of the Post’s June 1971 dilemma—publish the Pentagon Papers or not? However, it pounds the typewriter keys with some overstated moments and over-emphasis of its unlikely hero.
Much of the film crosscuts between publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep)—taking the Post public on the American Stock Exchange—and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), deflated by the Times’ scoop, then elated by the chance to publish after their Gray Lady rival’s are left muzzled. But the story’s lead goes to the Post’s first lady, Graham—a socialite and Washington insider who’s nonetheless patronized by her all-male board.
Her difficult decision is a major American predicament, pitting corporate interest against public interest. Graham seems too anxious of a figure (though she’d been the paper’s head for seven years already) before her female courage is overstated and simplified (young women even look on at her in awe as she leaves the Supreme Court). For all the starkly angled shots and smoothly staged suspense or showdowns or snooping around, the pursuit of the papers gets a bit buried here. The convictions, bravery, and hard work of Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) or Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), sleuthing-out Ellsberg, are relatively downplayed. Bradlee stands in for journalistic integrity but his staff is sidelined. By the end, with loving looks at line editing, typesetting, and the rolling-of-the-presses, the movie lauds this fleeting moment of journalistic greatness, when the media held the powers-that-be to account. The Post even ends with a snicker at Nixon, a set-up for All The President’s Men (1976). But this picture, in an era of Facebook-funneled feeds and 24/7 hype-cycles, turns out to be a far newsboy’s cry from that classic.
Directed by Steven Spielberg