REVIEW / BIOGRAPHICAL DRAMA
THE POST (PG13)
117 minutes/Opens today/ 4 stars
The story: In 1971, the New York Times publishes a leaked secret document, an academic study of the Vietnam War that will be dubbed the Pentagon Papers. Commissioned by the Department of Defense, the papers reveal that the war is going badly for the United States, and that for decades, the public has been lied to about its progress. When the papers land on the desk of The Washington Post, its owner, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), must choose between listening to her chief editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), who wants to publish them, and her lawyers, who warn that doing so could end her family business.
Director Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep: It is a match made in movie heaven and now here they are, finally, in one picture.
The result is one of the most compulsively watchable experiences in months and a film that takes what might have been a quagmire of legal procedure and boils it down to a simple matter of right and wrong.
Getting to the heart of the story has been a strength of Spielberg's for a long time, whether that story is about a dinosaur zoo (Jurassic Park, 1993) or of a man caught in international limbo (The Terminal, 2004).
Here, it helps that his protagonists - society doyenne Graham (Streep) and street-fighting editor Bradlee (Hanks) - are also antagonists. The heiress to a struggling newspaper business hosts elegant dinner parties with members of the Washington establishment, while Bradlee is the crusading editor tired of playing second fiddle to the mighty New York Times and is willing to burn his paper's goodwill with the Richard Nixon presidency to one-up his competition.
The newspaper business, especially in the days before computers and mobile phones, are a visual film-maker's dream. Spielberg does not let a moment go to waste.
There are secretaries and reporters bursting into rooms waving sheets of paper and lovingly detailed shots of ideas becoming three-dimensional, moving from typewriter to printing press to stacks of newsprint dropped outside the White House, like bombs.
Graham, who inherited the job after her husband's suicide, grows in stature - from reluctant boss shouted down by male subordinates to a more confident leader - and is fascinating to watch, thanks in large part to Streep's sensitive portrayal.
It is so good that scenes clearly intended as exposition, about the Pentagon papers, or how she became a publisher, are still worthy of close attention.