In 1971, U.S. military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, then employed by the global policy think tank the RAND Corporation, emerged one of the world's most famous whistleblowers with his leaking of the Pentagon Papers to the American press. The Papers marked an unfiltered Pentagon study, spanning three decades and four U.S. presidents, of government decision-making, warts and all, pertaining to the Vietnam War.
Steven Spielberg's The Post observes how Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the first female publisher of a major American newspaper (The Washington Post), and Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) vied to catch up with The New York Times, the first publication to report on excepts from the more than 7,000 pages of the Pentagon study.
The Nixon administration files a court order against the Times, temporarily barring them from further coverage on the Papers. This inspires Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), hopeful another publication can continue this reporting, to leak the documents to Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk). Further coverage is easier said than done, however, as Graham and Bradlee face pressure from the Post's financial stakeholders to refrain from stories on the Papers, plus the prospect of potentially being thrown in jail for publication of these top secret documents.
Like recent Spielberg dramas Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, The Post is a sufficiently engaging and entertaining endeavor, hardly on the same level of his best work (or 2015's newsroom drama Spotlight) but just satisfying enough. After a meandering start, the proceedings catch fire as Graham, Bradlee and the Post staff agonize over whether to go to print. All is well until the picture's final few minutes, a heavy-handed ending that brings out the saccharin worst in the director.
Streep and Hanks, even if they never really disappear into these roles (unlike Jason Robards as Bradlee in All the President's Men), are in sturdy form. More interesting are the scene-stealing Odenkirk and Bruce Greenwood, who portrays former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, a friend of Graham's who hardly comes across well in the Papers. A scene in which McNamara warns Graham about the Nixon administration's hellbent desire to shut the Post's efforts down is among the film's best.
Sadly, other talented actors, like Sarah Paulson as Bradlee's wife, Alison Brie as Graham's daughter and Carrie Coon as another Post reporter, serve as mere window dressing.
In the end, The Post is a fine, if workmanlike piece of Oscar bait, lacking the imagination and vitality of Spielberg's best work but, given the compelling subject matter and talent involved, still plenty watchable.