Spielberg is in full-on Frank Capra mode for this entertaining but forgettable dramatization of the Pentagon Papers, and the Washington Post's role in their publication.
The Pentagon Papers, in case your memory needs refreshing, was a study commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (enduringly profiled in Errol Morris's The Fog of War) in 1966 to see how Vietnam was going. In 1971, the study was leaked by writer Daniel Ellsberg, who had had enough of government duplicity. In a nutshell, the papers blew open years of deception on the part of the American government. Even though McNamara was out by the time the papers were published, Richard Nixon, still overseeing the war as commander-in-chief, was not happy with the leak. To say the least.
The Post hones in on several days in the life of the Washington Post, as owner Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep, playing a subtle variation of her usual royal Streepness) wrings her hands over whether to publish the papers, in the middle of a perfect storm of high stakes: the Post had just gone public, Nixon was in a suing mood, and she was close friends with McNamara.
When making a film about a real event that most viewers already know the outcome of, good storytelling comes in the "how" of the event, not the "when" or the "why" or the "who". Take, for example, Apollo 13: Even if we already know that Jim Lovell and crew made it back to Earth safely, the power of the film is in detailing just how they got out of that most impossible of predicaments. Spielberg himself proved adept at this in his recent political outings Lincoln and Bridge of Spies. The Post, in contrast, has no "how". The entire drama hinges on Graham's decision on whether or not to publish. It's an interesting bit of history, but it's not enough to make a whole movie about.
The cast is fun, led by Spielberg veteran Tom Hanks as Post editor Ben Bradlee, and it's irresistible to see Mr. Show partners Bob Odenkirk (in a major role) and David Cross (less major) sharing the big screen together. Spielberg and his team do a good job at recapturing newspaper life in 1971, and those seeking wish-fulfillment – which Spielberg excels at – will swoon at watching heroic journalists defy a bullying president. (The Post, of course, serves as a prequel to All the President's Men, in which Washington Post reporters uncovered Watergate.) But handsome as it is, its relevance feels oddly fleeting, its morality simplistic. Spielberg, who rarely tells women's stories, gives us some clumsy feminist imagery, and the story concludes with corny bromides. Still, it's a decent movie for grownups. Your mom will love it, especially if she's a Democrat.