The term 'fourth estate' was coined in 1841 by philosopher Thomas Carlyle when he said that the Reporter's Gallery was far more important than the 'three estates' of parliament. This titbit of history tells us the battle lines over 'fake news' are as old as 'the press' itself. It is also the context for The Post (2017), a dramatic thriller and civics lesson about the media's role in checking government power. The Post shows why the media is despised by despots and is thus essential viewing for anyone wanting to better understand today's shambolic attacks on the media.
The facts of the story became world news. By the mid-1960s, most Americans were losing faith in the nation's prospects of an honourable conclusion to three decades of conflict in Vietnam. While various Presidents told Americans that success was assured, the top-secret Pentagon Papers revealed that national policy was based on a litany of lies. Former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg notoriously leaked the Papers to the New York Times, but publication was suppressed by court order. The rival Washington Post acquired a copy and had to decide whether to publish and risk the paper's future, or not publish and lose the respect of its journalists.
A dramatic high-tension wire is strung between Post heiress and socialite Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) and her hard-core news editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). They are polar opposites: she is a darling of the establishment, uncertain of her ability and fearful of losing not only the business but her social standing. Bradlee is a truth-seeking journalist who mistrusts lawyers and would publish at any cost. Described as "the most highly classified documents of the war", the President commands an army of lawyers threatening Armageddon if the paper goes to print. The film's period set design is brilliant: the reporter's room is a galley of buzzing typewriters and the printing press a mechanical maze of oiled steel grinding out papers in a frantic atmosphere of unrelenting deadlines. Against this background, the pre-feminist newspaper owner must make a decision that could bring down a President. When the choice is made, the Post must then face presidential retaliation via the Supreme Court.
This story requires no narrative embellishment, nor does it need dramatic performances to convey the high-stakes of an extraordinary moment. The casting of stars and support is excellent. Streep and Hanks give their most understated performances of recent times; no other contemporary actors could have filled these roles with their authority and authenticity. Spielberg's direction keeps the events unfolding at a brisk pace to leverage the tension curve upwards while sticking close to the facts. This is masterful storytelling based on an important event that resonates into the modern era.