It's tempting to wonder why we needed "The Post." Didn't we already have the classic "All the President's Men" -- one of the greatest newspaper movies ever made -- about Watergate and the Washington Post? Didn't we just see another great newspaper movie -- Tom McCarthy's "Spotlight" -- about how the current Post editor Marty Baron led the Boston Globe into epochal studies of priestly child abuse?
Why, you might well ask, do we need to see all those heavyweight Oscar winners (Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg) in a film about a historic journalistic breakthrough that belonged to the New York Times, not the Washington Post?
A lot of reasons it turns out -- chiefly:
1) "The Post" is one of the greatest unintentional "prequels" in movie history. If you want to find out how the Washington Post developed the institutional chutzpah to go on and investigate Watergate so thoroughly, you get it in "The Post" a cinematic inside look at how, as the principals put it, they stopped being "just a little local paper" and started acting like an informational powerhouse against a repressing government.
2) "The Post" is the perfect film for this historic moment. Not only do we have an American president who has declared the mainstream press "fake" and "the enemy of the people," but we have a gender reckoning all over America which couldn't possibly be more in need of a rousing tale of an unlikely American heroine.
I don't know whether history will finally settle on Post publisher Katharine Graham as the equal of Eleanor Roosevelt or Rosa Parks but "The Post" goes a long way toward making a great historical figure out of a privileged woman who was raised and expected to be something else entirely.
However accidental it was, her greatness in history's eyes is very real.
That's why Spielberg needed Streep for this baby. This is the publisher's story. It's all about the guts-out decision to follow the Times' lead and publish more of the Pentagon Papers even after a court in New York had forced the Times to temporarily cease and desist.
The Post at the time was going public at $24.50 a share. A negative Supreme Court could have sent the publisher and editor to the clink eventually and sent the paper's finances into the dumpster.
It was Graham's decision, ultimately. And, in doing so, she became a feminist icon for the ages -- the hard way (which is always the most remarkable and influential).
For those who aren't of an age to remember, the Pentagon Papers were the result of an academic study commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on the Vietnam War through the years. The problem at the time with such tedious sounding stuff is that it all proved, every step of the way, that the government insisted on involvement in Vietnam despite egregious loss of life, money and national pride, all the while knowing a positive result was impossible.
It was America's great "teach-in" Newspaper Style. But then that New York courts said to the New York Times "no. Cut it out."
Up stood Bradlee and his prestige-hungry, competitive bunch at the Post -- if only their worried, insecure and financially embattled publisher would back their play and establish her individualism and courage against everything her life up to then had preferred that she never do.
That's why you hire the greatest actress in American movies to play her.
She gives you all the doubt, all the fear, all the life sorrow (her husband Phil had committed suicide years ago) and all the stodgy inanity of her privileged social milieu. And then for the dramatic payoff, with Hanks on the set and Spielberg in the director's chair, she gives you a resounding movie moment.
All right, let's all admit that no one would have been as naively fearful as these people are said to be about the Supreme Court going against them. Professional court prognostication has been an advanced Washington science for many decades. Nor would they have been so surprised in the slightest by the rousing media support that showed up everywhere. (I was writing media criticism at the time and that media era was overwhelmingly in their favor.)
And yes, it would have been awfully nice if Spielberg had resisted the final preachment, even it does quote the words of the great Hugo Black.
But if ever there were an era where one well-placed mawkish moment and a full blast of high school civics pedagogy were warranted, it's an era like ours so empty of human regard and so passionately attached to ignorance and lies.
"All the President's Men" has now become this movie's classic sequel.
Here, from the most capable hands, is a very good movie showing you how the events in that one came to be.
3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood and Bradley Whitford in Steven Spielberg's film about the Washington Post's 1971 struggle to report and print the Pentagon Papers after courts silenced the New York Times. Rated PG-13 for language and some war violence. 116 minutes.