In Vietnam the civil war was raging throughout the nineteen-sixties, and government employee Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) has been sent to the nation as an observer. Unfortunately for the war effort, what he observes in 1965 is that there has been very little progress, in fact it is much the same as the American troops sent to fight the north are being sacrificed for reasons he finds difficult to take on board as far as his conscience goes. As he writes his report, he is brutally honest that successive American administrations, both Democrat and Republican, have hidden the truth about the war that he now believes is unwinnable. But he cannot let his report stay secret - someone must know.
Step in The New York Times, who he went to with his documents liberated from a government office, but this was not a story about them, it was a story about a smaller, more local newspaper who had realised they needed to expand if they were to stay afloat. That paper was The Washington Post, and this film adopted two of its most powerful players to follow in this tale of the value of the freedom of the press, and how though the consequences of that can be damaging, it was better than the alternative which was the authorities were never held accountable by those who voted for them or relied on them to run things. The government in this case was the administration of Richard Nixon.
Now, we all know how that turned out as there had been a certain scandal back in the early-to-mid seventies that had exposed the ruling Republican party as having consciously broken the law in their paranoid attempts to keep their political opponents in check, and not only this but an Oscar-winning movie had appeared hot on the heels of the Watergate affair to set in stone the details. That was the justified classic All the President's Men, and it was often held up, rightfully so, as the apex of intelligent moviemaking from a decade sentimentalised about as a period when films were made for grown-ups who were trusted to follow the more complex narratives that were being presented to them.
Of course, that was only half the story, as there were still audiences flocking to see crowdpleasers starring Burt Reynolds which did not exactly require a great degree of thought, but it seemed with The Post director Steven Spielberg was deliberately harking back to those days to see if that sort of material would still fly in the twenty-first century. His reasoning was also political: an avowed liberal, he had watched the right in America become a bizarre mixture of over the top selfishness and conspiracy theorising to justify a paranoia that in the seventies had been the provenance of the left, so now there was a right wing bogeyman in the White House, he was going to put it to the nation, to the world, that there remained a large group of Americans who had to have faith in the news they were being given, as influential decision makers bastardised the public's ability to see things without the obfuscations of corruption and conniving management of information.
Not simply the tabloid fodder that populated the online and right-wing news channels (one in particular was a favourite of the President, curious then that this was a 20th Century Fox production), but the material that had been properly checked, had a very good point to make, and justified the notion of the press as crusaders for truth and exposers of injustice. There was an assured relish here in depicting how news used to be gathered, not simply illegally spying on celebrities or copy and pasting Twitter comments, but actually going out there and finding out the truth, and as this operated as a highlight in the careers of editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), immediately pre-Watergate, there was also a motive to present the story as a representation of the waking up of feminism as Graham was the woman learning on the job inherited from her late husband, and in whose hands the truth lay. The seventies movie brats were not known for their championing of female characters particularly, so it was cheering to see Spielberg was still growing as a commentator even at this stage. The Post unfussily offered food for thought and trusted its story and its audience to make connections and draw the correct conclusions: it's important to know when you're being lied to, and when you are not. Music by John Williams.
[Entertainment One's Blu-ray has a nice seventies look and a few context-setting featurettes as extras.]
His best films combine thrills with a childlike sense of wonder, but when he turns this to serious films like The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Bridge of Spies these efforts are, perhaps, less effective than the out-and-out popcorn movies which suit him best. Of his other films, 1941 was his biggest flop, The Terminal fell between two stools of drama and comedy and one-time Kubrick project A.I. divided audiences; Hook saw him at his most juvenile - the downside of the approach that has served him so well. Also a powerful producer.