Donald Trump recently threatened legal action against author Michael Wolff and his publisher to halt the release of a book chronicling the inner inanity of the president's nascent administration. Steven Spielberg's The Post covers a different decade, presidency, and controversy, but you don't need to look hard to see an analog in Richard Nixon threatening to prosecute The Washington Post for publishing the classified Pentagon Papers in 1971.
Even without this parallel, The Post would be a polished polemic, drawing on both our history and our present to reiterate the importance of a free, independent press. It's essentially a newsroom procedural. While The Washington Post is trying to figure out how to cover Tricia Nixon's wedding, famed New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan is breaking major news about the Vietnam War. Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) suspects the Times is working on another big story after the extended absence of Sheehan's byline. After Bradlee sends an intern to spy on the Times building, the Post races to land the leaked Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study documenting the U.S. government's decades of lies and missteps in Vietnam.
Bradlee's dogged desire to report the Pentagon Papers, even after the Justice Department forbids the Times from further publication of them, also runs against the precarious position of the paper's finances and the disposition of its publisher, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep). This is an era when even the publisher of The Washington Post retires to the parlor with the other ladies when the after-dinner conversation turns too worldly. Graham, portrayed as a socialite who assumed control of the paper only because of the death of her husband, is more comfortable hosting soirees, and the Pentagon Papers affair forces her to find her agency against both the patriarchy and her own self-doubt.
Spielberg can make a better movie using muscle memory than most filmmakers can while exerting full effort. Every element of The Post is finely crafted, from the scene construction to the set design and the heady cast—Streep is especially magnificent. The film takes place before digital media, before publication meant pushing the "send" button and the truth could be edited after the fact. Spielberg revels in the visual intricacies of the Linotype process, where all the news that's fit to print is first etched into blocks of lead, like the stone tablets of Mount Sinai.
"The only way to protect the right to publish is to publish," Bradlee repeats. As the Post battles to preserve First Amendment freedoms, he and Graham must also confront how their cozy relationships with politicians—the Kennedys, LBJ, and Robert McNamara—led them to unwittingly turn blind eyes toward the deceptions that led to the Vietnam War. As such, The Post is not just a paean to the press; it's about the end of its age of innocence. Though it's just reaching Triangle theaters, it's one of the best, most important films of last year.