Arts

The Post tells timely tales of holding power to account and of gender inequality

Steven Spielberg's dramatisation of events surrounding the publication of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam war, in which Meryl Streep gives an imperious performance as a US newspaper publisher, feels uncomfortably relevant today, writes Damon Smith

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham in The Post

IN 1971, The New York Times successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to uphold the rights of a free press in response to a challenge from US president Richard Nixon to suspend publication of classified reports detailing US military involvement in Vietnam.

Director Steven Spielberg's handsome dramatisation of events leading up to this high-profile legal showdown feels uncomfortably relevant in a modern era of fake news and presidential Twitter outbursts.

The Post is also a timely depiction of gender inequality in the workplace and lionises the achievements of Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, who risked losing the business her father bought in 1933 because she refused to be bullied into submission by a patriarchal establishment and sacrifice ideals enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

Tubs are repeatedly thumped in Spielberg's picture, most powerfully in Meryl Streep's tour-de-force portrayal of Graham, which captures every facet of a working mother's resolve, inner turmoil and defiance.

It seems almost redundant nowadays to draw attention to her ability to delve beneath the skin of her characters but Streep's work here is sublime.

Tom Hanks provides robust support as Ben Bradlee, crusading executive editor of The Washington Post, who doesn't appreciate meddling from the boardroom.

"Keep your finger out of my eye," he politely but firmly tells Graham during one frank exchange.

The film opens in 1966 Vietnam, where military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) witnesses first-hand the loss of US troops and reports back his grave concerns to Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood).

Fearful that the administration is whitewashing the unflattering truth, Ellsberg photocopies classified reports and leaks pages to The New York Times under editor Abe Rosenthal (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Over in Washington, Bradlee (Hanks) reads his rival's front scoop with envy.

"Anyone else tired of reading the news rather than writing it?" he despairs to his team.

Bradlee encourages reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) to chase down a copy of the report so The Washington Post can bloody its nose too.

Publisher Katharine Graham (Streep), who is a good friend of McNamara, faces an impossible decision and seeks guidance from the chairman of the board, Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts).

After a sluggish opening 15 minutes, The Post whirrs smoothly into action, cutting back and forth between Graham and Bradlee's personal odysseys.

Period detail is impeccable and Spielberg's frequent cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams add lustre to the stylish project.

Streep is in imperious form and she richly deserves a 21st Oscar nomination.

Hanks issues the picture's rallying cry for the media to hold a microscope to the political elite and expose every ugly blemish.

"We have to be the check on their power," he sermonises. "If we don't hold them accountable, who will?"

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THE POST (12A, 116 mins)

Drama/Thriller/War. Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Michael Stuhlbarg. Director: Steven Spielberg

RATING: 8/10

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