The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Post

Steven Spielberg's The Post is many things all at once. It's a superb drama about journalism. It's a worthy unofficial prequel to All the President's Men. And it's also a movie that speaks to our present by examining our past. Given that the film stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, one could accurately say that it's a master class in acting, as well. All of these things add up to a riveting, urgent bit of cinematic storytelling that speaks an unassailable truth about the value of a free press.

Hanks plays legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. He's looking to get the kind of scoops that rival New York Times procures regularly. An opportunity arises when the Times gets wind of the Pentagon Papers – documents showing the government knew for years that the United States was fighting a losing war in Vietnam. Nixon's White House files an injunction to stop them from publishing any more than they already have, giving Bradlee an opening. He instructs his intrepid team of reporters, led by Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), to get those papers so that they can publish the rest.

Before he can do this, Bradlee has to convince the Post's owner, Katherine Graham (Streep), to risk being prosecuted by Nixon and his team. Complicating the matter is that she's close to some of the key players in the scandal, most notably former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). With the Post's board of directors urging her not to rock the boat, and Bradlee encouraging her to tip it over, Graham has to make a choice that, either way, will have significant implications for the world of journalism.

The Post cleverly uses actual audio from the Nixon tapes to stand in for the man himself. His vengeful presence looms over the story as he plots to go after any outlet that prints something to unleash the secrets of the Pentagon Papers. The movie examines the concept of the press holding those in power accountable. Bradlee feels that the public has a right to know what's happening and that the media has an ethical responsibility to call out wrongdoing, even if it's in the corridors of the White House. Graham agrees, at least in theory, while also fearing the potential repercussions.

Obviously, a movie like this is incredibly poignant right at this moment. We live in a time when the current president has referred to the media as the "enemy of the American people” and repeatedly attempts to undermine their reporting as “fake news.” Although The Post takes place in the 1970s, the modern-day relevance is obvious. Needless to say, the film comes down on the side of the media, suggesting that the ability of the press to report without pressure from the government is a crucial component to keeping society functioning and holding our elected officials in check. Screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer don't underline the connection between then and now; then again, they don't need to, since it's clear as day.

One of the things that's most impressive about The Post is the efficiency with which Spielberg tells the story. Many A-list directors get to the point where they fall so much in love with what they can do that they lose perspective on pacing. That's why so many of them routinely make pictures running two-and-a-half to three hours upon reaching a certain level of status in their careers. The Post, on the other hand, runs just 115 minutes, moving along at a brisk pace that often makes it feel like a taut thriller as much as a drama about journalism. Spielberg sticks to what's most essential, taking strides to build suspense, even though most people in the audience already know the outcome. This is one of the best films of his illustrious career.

Outstanding performances add tremendously to the effect. Hanks has the daunting task of playing Ben Bradlee after Jason Robards did it so definitively in All the President's Men. His Bradlee is different – some of the irascible personality traits have been toned down – but no less fearless. Hanks is a great choice, because the natural charisma he brings to every role makes it easy to understand why Bradlee's reporters would put their freedom on the line for him.

Streep, meanwhile, is nothing short of magnetic as Katherine Graham, conveying the internal struggle this woman surely felt when faced with a landmark decision. The actress gets what may be the single best moment she's ever had onscreen – a long, silent closeup during which Katherine, on a phone call, has to make a split-second decision about whether to publish the Pentagon Papers or not. That's the most tense moment in the movie, as Streep makes the pressure palpable.

The Post has immense respect for reporters. It's a spellbinding recreation of a time in American history when officials who misled the nation knew they were on the verge of being caught and did everything they could to avoid it. Their inability to get away with their misdeeds is only because dedicated journalists gathered facts, corroborated details, and presented the information to the public. They were heroes. They still are.

( out of four)

The Post is rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.

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