"The Post" goes against the contemporary Hollywood grain. Propulsive major studio cinema made with a real-world purpose in mind, it's a risky venture that succeeds across the board.
Prodded into existence by Steven Spielberg, one of the few filmmakers capable of making the studio system do his bidding and of convincing major players like Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks to go along with him, "The Post" takes on a particularly counterintuitive subject.
That would be the Washington Post's 1971 role in publishing what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret 47-volume, 7,000-page Department of Defense study of the war in Vietnam that exposed all manner of official prevarications and outright lies extending over the terms of four presidents.
For one thing, as the gripping Liz Hannah and Josh Singer script makes clear, the breaking of this story was initially owned lock, stock and barrel by the paper's rival the New York Times, which may be why Post editor Ben Bradlee gave it only 14 pages in his autobiography compared with 60 pages for Watergate.
For another, there has already been an excellent Washington Post movie in "All the President's Men." Also, given that the Oscar-winning pro-journalism drama "Spotlight" came out just two years ago, the market wasn't necessarily desperate for another one.
And that's just the point. "The Post" is the rare Hollywood movie made not to fulfill marketing imperatives but because the filmmakers felt the subject matter had real and immediate relevance to the crisis both society and print journalism find themselves in right now.
When Spielberg recently told the Hollywood Reporter, "I realized this was the only year to make this film," he was speaking to what he saw as the immediate need for a project that in effect commandeers yesterday to comment on today.
Aiming to combine what the director calls "a chase film with journalists" with an essential civics lesson, "The Post" showcases the value of newspapers hanging together and holding government accountable for deception even in the face of possibly crippling financial pressures.
Given that Spielberg only committed to "The Post" in March while already involved in the effects-laden "Ready Player One," due out early next year, this film had to be made with remarkable speed to meet the 2017 deadline.
Collaborating with his regular team, including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn (Sarah Broshar co-edited), production designer Rick Carter and composer John Williams (costume designer Ann Roth is new to the group), Spielberg seems to have been energized by the self-imposed time restraints.
"The Post," made with the pacing of a thriller, has an appealing sense of urgency about it, with the director, echoing newspaper films past like Sam Fuller's "Park Row," working in a lean, focused style that also feels loose and unconstrained.
Though Hanks' Bradlee is obviously a key player, "The Post" is really about the professional coming of age of Streep’s Katharine Graham, the owner of the Post.
Daughter and widow of the two previous Post owners, respectively, and not anyone who thought she'd ever be in charge, Graham had to simultaneously navigate the shoals of Wall Street by taking her company public while considering publishing secret information that could both hurt the public offering and land key people in jail.
(According to the press material, first-time screenwriter Hannah's script focused more on Graham, so Singer, an Oscar winner for "Spotlight," was brought on to pump up Bradlee and the rest of the newsroom staff.)
Before we get to that newsroom, however, "The Post" flashes back to Vietnam in 1966, when a young Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) hangs with troops on a fact-finding mission for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood).
Shocked to hear McNamara say one thing in private about U.S. military prospects and something else to the press, Ellsberg helps write a massive report for the Rand Corp. on American involvement that we see him sneak out of its offices in the dead of night in order to make Xerox copies.
Bradlee, for his part, might be dealing with mundane problems like how to cope with President Nixon's attempt to bar Post reporters from covering daughter Tricia's wedding, but he's heard rumors that the New York Times is onto something big.
Playing catch-up once the Times publishes, Bradlee assigns reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), who has a hunch Ellsberg is the source of the leak, to obtain the Post's own copy of the papers.
When the Nixon administration asks a federal judge to enjoin the Times from publishing, Bradlee sees an opportunity. "If the Times shuts down," he says, "we're in business."
But first he has to persuade Graham, who wants to believe that "quality and profitability" go hand in hand for newspapers, but worries that repercussions of publishing will doom the public offering.
Screenwriters Hannah and Singer nicely marshal their arguments here ("We have to be a check on their power," Bradlee says, "if we don't hold them accountable who will?") and the parallels to the position of the press today are strong and vivid, as they are meant to be.
Though "The Post's" supporting players are key, the film is in some ways a two-hander, and both Hanks and Streep understand that their push-pull relationship is the film's emotional center.
Realizing that he does not physically resemble Bradlee as "President’s Men" Oscar winner Jason Robards did, Hanks finds his own path to make the editor come alive, while the remarkable way Streep captures and conveys Graham's essence is quite special.
One of the intriguing aspects of "The Post" are the connections between its creators and top journalists. Producer Amy Pascal is married to former New York Times reporter Bernard Weinraub and Spielberg has dedicated the film to the late Nora Ephron, who, along with her husband, Nick Pileggi, were summer house neighbors of Spielberg's in New York's Hamptons. "The Post's" message is personal for him, and he's done all he can to make audiences feel the same way.
Rating: PG-13 for language and brief war violence
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood; ArcLight, Sherman Oaks; Landmark, West Los Angeles