This is an engaging newspaper film that wants to be a classic but is held back both by its poetic license and its directors worst instincts. Still, I mostly enjoyed it.
A lot of people wondered why they made a movie about “The Pentagon Papers” that is about the Washington Post rather than the New York Times, which broke the story. But I think it makes sense. Especially in the age of Trump, Hollywood is depicting media solidarity with this story, not just breaking a big story. So I think the story makes sense from that perspective.
And I also understand the desire to humanize Kay Graham and try to make her a woman in a man’s world, instead of the Titan of Journalism she is so often portrayed as. I don’t know how accurate that actually is but I get why the story is told this way.
But the point about whether or not the Graham angle is accurate brings up one of the two big problems with the movie: the film is loose with the truth and it’s easy to verify. This is true both in terms of the timeline – which is conflated – and with the casting or minor roles, which feels so progressive as to be actually incorrect. (At one point Graham is praised by a woman who appears to be of Indian descent who works for the Solicitor General. This feels completely fake and only in the film to show the film has its progressive bonafides in tact.)
I actually liked the stunt casting (of numerous famous people), I didn’t find it distracting. I like the pacing and I like the tone and I like the direction. In fact, the direction is, at times, wonderful, with some truly great shots and sequences. (I didn’t write down my favourite parts, but there were a couple where I was like: “Jesus Spielberg is a great director.) Spielberg is in fine form in this film, when it comes to actual filming of the movie. And it’s a sight to behold.
He isn’t in fine form, as usual, when it comes to trusting his audience. In order to suggest that Graham should be some kind of feminist icon for being a woman in a man’s world who stands up to a tyrannical government, he has her walk through a group of women, all of whom are visibly moving their bodies to show her they approve of her fight. In order to show us that this will not be the last fight the Washington Post has with the Nixon Administration, he actually depicts the Watergate break-in as the film’s second denouement. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Steven Spielberg does not trust you to figure anything out. He thinks you’re 12. (And apparently thinks people who’ve decided to watch a movie about the Pentagon Papers don’t remember Watergate.)
Even though this film barely focuses on Daniel Ellsberg I still think it had the potential to be a pretty great newspaper movie. But Spielberg can’t help himself and certain decisions he and his collaborators have made here weaken the film, making it seem heavy handed and more like liberal propaganda about the value of the MSM than a movie about relationship between power and freedom of expression.