A Review by Marc Leepson – VVA Veteran Arts Editor and Senior Writer
It’s not every day that a big Hollywood movie opens with an in-country Vietnam War combat scene. In fact, it’s a rarity in the 21st century.
But that’s precisely how Steven Spielberg starts “The Post,” his star-studded (Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep), gripping look at the high drama surrounding the publication of “The Pentagon Papers”—the top-secret DoD-produced history of the Vietnam War—by The New York Times and The Washington Post in May of 1971.
The Vietnam War opener, under the technical direction of former Marine James Dever (“American Sniper,” “Unbroken,” et al), gives a stunning start to a movie that’s getting deservedly great reviews. It’s a meaty, relatively short scene. The good news is that it passes muster in the verisimilitude department for Vietnam the country, as well as for the American war in that country.
That scene—and the one that follows—gives the uninitiated the concise backstory for the Pentagon Papers saga. It’s sometime in 1966. We see former gung-ho Marine Daniel Ellsberg, now working as a DoD adviser, donning a steel pot and going along on a jungle patrol that ends very badly for our side. Badly as is plenty of body bags to deal with.
Cut to a U.S. government jet flying back from Vietnam. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara summons Ellsberg to the front of the plane to get his assessment of the war. It isn’t positive. McNamara wholeheartedly agrees.
Then we see McNamara get off the plane in D.C., and tell a bunch of newspaper reporters that the war is going really well and he’s sure the U.S. will prevail. That’s the straw that breaks Ellsberg’s back.
He decides to steal a copy of the Papers from the RAND Corporation, the think tank where he works. Next we see Ellsburg, his colleague Anthony Russo, and Ellsberg’s daughter laboriously photocopying all 7,000 pages of the Papers. The mountain of material soon is turned over to the former Vietnam War correspondent Neil Sheehan at The New York Times.
The Washington Post gets scooped when the Times publishes excerpts. But the next day the Nixon administration orders the Times to stop publishing—the first (and only) time in U.S. history that a president tried to stop a newspaper from publishing an article. During the ensuing legal wrangling, the Post gets its hands on the Papers. Editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) convinces publisher Katharine Graham (Streep) to publish even though a big federal legal battle that would be sure to follow could deal a financial death blow to the struggling paper.
Spielberg is a great storyteller and that’s this film’s biggest strength. The momentum builds and builds, with roadblocks, side plots, and legal and personal high drama. It’s one of those movies in which the outcome is well known, but Spielberg still makes you root for the good guys—and sweat it out just about to the very end.
Another strong point is the acting, with Hanks and Streep at their best, which means they’re about as good as it gets. They get plenty of help from a strong group of supporting players who get lots to do.
That includes Matthew Rhys, the excellent Brit actor best known on these shores for his starring role in the TV series “The Americans,” and Bob Odenkirk (best known as Saul Goodman in “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”), who gives depth and a bit of humor to his portrayal of Ben Bagdikian, the Post’s national editor who ferreted out Ellsberg when he was in hiding and physically brought a copy of the Papers to the Post on a commercial flight. Other standouts are Carrie Coon as Post Editorial Page Editor Meg Greenfield and the oddball comedian and comic actor David Cross (Tobias in “Arrested Development”), who plays it straight (and really well) as one of the post editors, Howard Simons.
I also liked Tracy Letts (an evil politico on “Homeland”) as Katharine Graham’s top business adviser; Michael Stuhlbarg (“Boardwalk Empire,” et al.) as the neurotic NYT editor Abe Rosenthal; Jesse Plemons (a great bad guy on “Breaking Bad” and a good guy in the second season of TV’s “Fargo”) as the Post’s top lawyer; and Zach Woods, who played goofy nerds in “The Office” and “Silicon Valley,” but here is totally serious as another Post lawyer.
Spielberg apostates no doubt will find fault with a few schmaltzy scenes and John (“Star Wars”) Williams’ too-often treacly score. But those are quibbles.
Overall, The Post is a top-quality film that examines a vitally important aspect of the American War in Vietnam—and also resonates in today’s political climate, rife as it is with attacks on the mainstream media, including the two newspapers Spielberg and company celebrate in this fine movie.