Longtime fans of Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Meryl Streep will find their latest political collaboration a misleading yawner. The Academy Award-winning trio attempt to bring suspense to the true-life discovery of the classified-marked Pentagon Papers, dating back 50 years to the Vietnam War. When “The Post” isn’t trying hard to manufacture drama in the Washington Post’s editorial room, Spielberg mischievously prosecutes the Republican Nixon Administration for the military and political sins of two Democratic presidents—John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
Under the disguise of Katharine Graham’s (Streep) remarkable rise to publisher of the Washington Post (the first-ever for a female at a major U.S. newspaper), the film articulately spells out the systemic lying to the American people on the secret expansion of the U.S. commitment in Vietnam and the neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos. These lies, combined with years of Pentagon assessments acknowledged that, despite numerous increased American troop levels, Vietnam was a lost cause from the start. For political and reelection reasons, however, the papers disclose that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations continued to tout success as if victory were soon at hand.
The dubious retelling of history in “The Post” leaves viewers believing that Richard Nixon was the true culprit for the secret war in Vietnam, as well as all the emboldened lies contained in the internal Pentagon study. Between cocktail parties or sidebar admissions from Bruce Greenwood’s character (Robert McNamara) and numerous shots of President Nixon on his Oval Office phone clamoring for the newspapers to not print the contents of the Pentagon Papers, the audience is misled. Defense Secretary McNamara served during the Kennedy and Johnson years, with his successor, Clark M. Clifford, receiving the completed Pentagon Papers five days before Nixon’s inauguration.
Once the rampant government deception is laid at Nixon’s White House, “The Post” congers up a simplistic noble journalism narrative in stark contrast to the rogue Republican. Tom Hanks’ plays Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, who gets completely scooped by his largest competitor, the New York Times, on the newly leaked 3,000-page military study. From there, the film tries too hard to establish a strong moral compass for journalism while at the same time highlighting the press’ willingness to print just about anything—as long as they’re first.
Ultimately, “The Post” doesn’t place newspapers or the media in much of a positive light. Only one true journalist with old school investigative talents is shown. Instead, in a fight to see which publication can go out to the public first, we watch Streep’s Graham character and Hanks’ Bradlee struggle with two simple demands of journalists—report the truth and don’t reveal any classified material that could affect our national security. Both requests manageable and reasonable.