MOVIE BUFF-ET: ‘The Post’ tells important story conventionally well

20th Century Fox

Publishing news always has been and always will be a serious and important business.

Sometimes, though, it is more serious and more important than others, and that above all else is what Steven Spielberg’s latest film “The Post” does best in telling the story of how in 1971 “The Washington Post” opted to defy an injunction and publish portions of The Pentagon Papers. The film aims its focus on the magnitude of the decision to publish and why it was imperative for the newspaper to do so.

The Pentagon Papers were classified and a damning study of the United States’ diplomatic and military efforts in the Vietnam War that were illegally leaked by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg first to “The New York Times” and shortly thereafter to “The New York Post.”

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The information contained in the papers was controversial because it showed that U.S. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon and other high-level officials had not only misled but also lied about the nation’s efforts in Vietnam since 1965. One of those officials was Robert McNamara, who served as Secretary of Defense from 1961-68 under Kennedy and Johnson. McNamara was close family friends with “Post” heiress Katherine Graham. That sets the stage for Spielberg’s story.

For a movie, the historical facts are basically on point, and with his dramatization of events, Spielberg no doubt captures the essence of analogue newsrooms of the 1970s, of which I was too young to participate in, but have heard and read ample stories detailing them.

The publication of the Pentagon Papers was and still stands as one of the greatest challenges to the freedom of the press — outlined in the First Amendment — that newspapers or the news media has faced in modern times.

The stand made by “The Post” and other papers around the nation despite the threat of possible imprisonment of the publishers, editors, and reporters involved was key in the preservation of the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. Lose one freedom outlined in the Bill of Rights, and all the rest become more at risk.

Telling the story of the Pentagon Papers today is particularly relevant for obvious reasons.

And Spielberg tells it well in a clear and amazingly concise manner. He deftly uses an outstanding ensemble cast led by Meryl Streep as Graham and Tom Hanks as “The Post’s” executive editor Ben Bradlee to get to the crux of the matter in a compellingly clear way. The film is not ham-fisted with its message, but its point is crystal.

Honestly, how can you go wrong with Spielberg behind the camera and with Steep and Hanks in front of it? Both actors are great in the film as they struggle over not only what is best for the paper’s readership but also its ownership.

A key plot point in the film is that Graham, who inherited the paper after her husband’s suicide, is taking the family business public just as this story comes to the newsroom’s attention. Publishing the story could jeopardize the sale if the banks supporting it get cold feet.

The newsman Bradlee and his entire editorial staff push for publication, while the papers board members and lawyers lobby for restraint and safety. Graham is caught smack in the middle, wanting to honor the paper’s responsibility to its readers as well as protect the family business. It might not exactly be “Sophie’s Choice,” but it is a compelling quandary.

While the stakes generally aren’t this high, media outlets make similar decisions about what they will and won’t report daily, and Spielberg, his cast and crew do a fine job of presenting that dilemma.

While I enjoyed Hanks and particularly Streep’s performances, the entire cast is great, particularly Bob Odenkirk as reporter Ben Bagdikian. I think every reporter in some form or fashion has probably lived through a moment similar to his street-side scene where he is chasing down a lead by using a bank of pay phones. The balancing act isn’t easy, but it was so true, so telling, and yet such a nice touch of comedy relief, crafted by Spielberg, Odenkirk, and screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer.

The film relies a great deal on exposition, and while I noticed it, the choices made by Spielberg weren’t laborious but rather fluid. This is a talky movie, but a good one that is worth seeing for its story and message.

My biggest issue with the film might be unfair. “The Post” lacks the flair or panache of a movie like Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” that was so entertainingly unconventional despite the fact it was about subprime lending and the financial crash of 2007-08. Ironically, that crash was the final shoe to drop for so many newspapers around the country in general and in our community in particular.

While that is neither here nor there, one hopes the surviving news-gathering organizations have the strength and fortitude to stand as strong when making their publication decisions as “The Post” did in this instance.

(PG-13) 1 hr. 56 min.
Grade: B+

Classic Corner

The Black Stallion

With mainly adult fare populating local theaters this week, a good family option for home viewing is 1979’s “The Black Stallion,” which airs at 7 p.m. Monday on Turner Classic Movies and is available for rental or purchase on a number of platforms.

The film is a charming adaption of Walter Farley’s 1941 children’s classic that is so well made that it should charm the young at heart from 8 to 80 years old. While shipwrecked on a deserted island Alec (Kelly Reno) befriends a fellow castaway, who just happens to be a majestic ebony Arabian stallion.

After eventually being rescued from the island, Alec and Black unite and retired racehorse jockey Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney) begins to train the horse and Alec for racing. The wild-at-heart stallion has incredible speed, but he’s a bit old and stubborn to be an ideal candidate for the race game.

The story is conventional and traditional, even by Hollywood standards, but the direction by Carroll Ballard is clear and pleasing to the child that hides away in many of our hearts. The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and is a treat for the eyes.

Reno is solid in his part as Alec and is thoroughly believable as a boy who loves his horse. Rooney was practically born for the role of Dailey, the retired jockey. The part, of course, is a callback to his role of Mi Taylor in “National Velvet,” but that movie is for another day. Rooney was nominated for a Best Actor in a Supporting Role Oscar for “The Black Stallion,” which holds up very well for modern viewers.