Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB. United Kingdom/USA, 2017. Amblin Entertainment, DreamWorks, Participant Media, Pascal Pictures, Star Thrower Entertainment, River Road Entertainment. Screenplay by Liz Hannah, Josh Singer. Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski. Produced by Kristie Macosko Krieger, Amy Pascal, Steven Spielberg. Music by John Williams. Production Design by Rick Carter. Costume Design by Ann Roth. Film Editing by Sarah Broshar, Michael Kahn. Academy Awards 2017. Golden Globe Awards 2017. Washington Film Critics Awards 2017.
In 1965, secretary of defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) tells Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) that nothing has changed in Vietnam for better or worse, which of course means things are worse, but when McNamara tows the White House line and tells the press that things are on the upswing over there, it lays the groundwork for a crisis of conscience that Ellsberg will later act upon (and which is covered in the documentary The Most Dangerous Man In America). Ellsberg and his colleagues take a report out of top secret filing cabinets that reveal harsh truths about Vietnam and copy them with the intention of getting them to the press, resulting in a story published by the New York Times in 1971 in which it is revealed that the government never believed that the war would be a success, but that four presidents in a row couldn’t let their masculine pride admit defeat. Nixon’s White House responds swiftly, all but shutting the newspaper down, which then gives the Washington Post an opportunity to pick up where Neil Sheehan and the Times left off, but the situation has gotten very dicey from a legal point of view. Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks in a spirited performance) pushes hard to go ahead with publishing the story, having already expressed his desire to expand the newspaper’s style of coverage to more provocative material, but less adventurous minds in high positions are afraid to invoke the government’s ire as it might kill the Post for good. The decision rests in the hands of Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), daughter of the newspaper’s former owner and widow of the man who took over ownership until tragically ending his own life. Graham has to not only decide between safety and integrity, risking the very existence of the newspaper her father built into its present glory, but must do battle with sexist opinions of her fitness to do her job that include her own personal doubts and insecurities. Great dialogue and confident direction by Steven Spielberg can do little for a mild-mannered film that aims to be a prequel to All the President’s Men but feels more like a brief prologue: most of the action happens off screen, it might be more dramatic to actually see people doing research or writing articles or even the actions inside court rooms instead of just watching Streep wait next to a telephone (which she does flawlessly, of course) or Hanks delegating jobs to his underlings. A movie that brings Sarah Paulson in to do little more than hand out sandwiches is definitely not going to challenge your ideas of political thrillers, but there are a few moments that do genuinely shine: Streep’s conversation with her daughter about accidentally upending expectations of a woman’s life is a poignant centre to a film that really doesn’t have one, while the cat-that-ate-the-canary look on her face when she overhears Times edtior Abe Rosenthal’s assistant inform him that he’s being sued by the government almost makes the whole thing worth sitting through (at least for those of us who love Streep’s face this much). I have no idea what to do about the terrible body double mimicking Nixon’s body language in long shots (while audio from the vault plays over the soundtrack), swanning his arms out like he’s imitation an orchestra conductor; it’s the sort of thing you’d see on a sitcom and proves that a very mixed bag of a movie this is.