Journalism is under attack – and no, not just from Donald Trump. Journalism has been fighting a losing battle against the internet, and the advertising industry, since the mid-1990s, and films such as The Post – which is timely on so many levels – show us once again just what has been lost.
This latest masterwork from the ever-reliable Steven Spielberg is set in 1971, during the tail-end of the Vietnam War. And even though it opens with a Vietnam battle scene in (complete with the requisite 60s rock song, this time Green River by Creedence Clearwater Revival), this is not a war film. It's a film about newspapers – one in particular, The Washington Post, and how real journalism used to be done. This was a time before computers and smartphones, when reporters used payphones and typewriters, sub-editors used red pencils, compositors used hot metal and everyone knew when the presses had started rolling because the building began to shake.
Central to the story of The Post is the issue of press freedom and the ability to hold those in power accountable for their actions. The New York Times gets its hands on a secret report, the Pentagon Papers, which details America's ill-fated involvement in the Vietnam War. It turns out that successive governments had been lying to the American people about the war and the chances of an American win (which it seemed, were nil) – and yet the government continued to send troops over to fight a losing battle. The Times published a report and was stopped from taking it any further after the Nixon administration won a court injunction, but The Washington Post gets its hands on the same papers and decides to go ahead and cover the story and damn the consequences.
But before the consequences can be damned there is a lot of back and forth between lawyares and our main two protagonists. Meryl Streep stars as Katharine Graham, The Post’s publisher, who took over the job after the death of her husband, and Tom Hanks as the legendary editor Ben Bradlee. The two may be boss and underling, but they are also friends and both respect each other and the job they have to do. And both have a deep love for The Post and a passion for journalism.
The performances are all first-rate, which is no surprise when you consider the calibre of the leads. Streep and Hanks are perfectly suited to their roles, and they play off each other beautifully – all their scenes together are mesmerising, so much so that it makes you wonder why it's taken so long for the two of them to make a film together. But the support cast is also of the highest calibre, including Alison Brie as Graham's daughter Lally, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Sarah Paulson, Bruce Greenwood, Michael Stuhlbarg and Pat Healy. As you may have noticed, it's a film full of white men. That's historically accurate, because back in the early 70s it was very much a white, male-dominated industry – Kath Graham being a female publisher was very much the exception to the rule.
While some dramatic license has been taken with the facts (the role of The Times has been downplayed and that of The Post boosted), the crux of the story remains – that for a democracy to not just survive but thrive, a free and robust press is essential. Polished direction from Spielberg and an accomplished screenplay from Liz Hannah and Josh Singer combine with solid performances from the cast to give us a powerful true-life tale that is essential viewing if only to see the parallels with what is going on in the world today.