The Post (12A)

STEVEN Spielberg’s political drama is custom-built for the times we’re living in. Though based on the leaking of the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s, its story of crusading journalists exposing the secrets and lies of government speaks loudly to anyone tired of today’s fake news and Twitter tyrants.

It also sheds a spotlight, again just at the right time, on a courageous and inspiring woman, newspaper publisher Katharine Graham, who fought deep-rooted chauvinism to lead the Washington Post to its golden age as a newspaper.

With glorious performances by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, and delivered with his usual full-bodied panache by Spielberg, this is a champagne bottle of a film, full of fizzing idealism.

Ask about the story that links the Post to disgraced US president Richard Nixon and people will invariably name Watergate. But before the crusading piece of investigative reporting that helped to expose that scandal (immortalised in the film All The President’s Men) came the Pentagon Papers.

This was the top-secret report, commissioned by then defence secretary Robert McNamara, which revealed decades of lies to the American public about the US involvement in Vietnam, by four different presidents, the biggest being the covert expansion of a war they knew they couldn’t win.

Nixon wasn’t one of those presidents, though of course secrecy was very much his bag. And when the report was leaked on his watch, he and his minions did their best to quell the revelations.

A punchy little prologue takes place in Vietnam in 1966, where government analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) is with the troops in the field, assessing the state of play in the war. Back home, and disillusioned with McNamara’s false optimism, he starts photocopying thousands of pages of his boss’s report.

Fast forward to 1971. Katharine Graham (Streep) and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) have different concerns: for her, it’s the parlous state of the paper’s finances, and the struggle of running her family business surrounded by male board members who don’t take her seriously; for him, the fact that the Post is frequently overshadowed by its rival the New York Times.

This happens again, as the Times begins to publish Vietnam exclusives based on the papers that Ellsberg has leaked. But when the government fires off an injunction against the Times, Bradlee sees a chance to get his paper “in the game”. The danger is that defying Nixon could sink the paper, once and for all. And the ultimate decision whether to take that risk is not his, but hers.

The script cleverly meshes its themes: the coming of age of Katharine Graham; the fact that both she and Bradlee feel compromised by their political friendships; the fight for the First Amendment right to a free press and the American public’s realisation that it can’t trust its governors. As Ellsberg says: “They knew we couldn’t win the war, but still sent our boys to die.”

It’s all infused with the thrill of watching a newsroom with the smell of a big story in its nostrils, made scintillating by Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s lively camerawork and gorgeous compositions.

An incredibly strong cast is led by two leads on top form. Streep is magnificent as she delineates Graham’s growing assurance – a close-up on her face as the publisher has to make her momentous decision feels like an acting masterclass in 60 seconds. For his part, Hanks has added some testosterone to his customary charm, and is gruffly and amusingly charismatic as a man who dominates every room he’s in. Their characters’ growing rapport and partnership merits a whole film to itself.