"The Post" - ★ ★ ★

Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks, brandishing an array of smirks and a cheap haircut) suspects The New York Times might be up to something.

Why? Because chief NYT reporter Neil Sheehan has been gone for months. He must be working on something BIG.

He was.

In the summer of 1971, the NYT began publishing the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret report detailing how the U.S. government, particularly its presidents, lied about the escalating Vietnam War, a conflict that officials knew early on could never be won, yet continued to stoke the fires of fighting that took thousands of American lives.

The NYT barely started publishing the 7,000-page document stolen by State Department employee Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) when the Nixon White House persuaded a judge to stop the newspaper.

If Bradlee could obtain those papers, he could put his newspaper on the proverbial map plus strike a blow for a free and unfettered press.

This becomes the powder keg premise of "The Post," Steven Spielberg's snappy, cautionary docudrama set just before the infamous Watergate scandal that became the subject of Alan J. Pakula's superior 1976 classic "All the President's Men."

This story also traces the evolution of Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) from an insecure, easily intimidated Post publisher to the decisive executive who changes antiquated journalistic practices in Washington, D.C.

Streep pumps Graham full of contemplative angst. After the deaths of previous publishers -- her father and her husband -- Graham inherits the title, but her all-male board doubts her abilities.

Graham agrees with Bradlee that printing the Pentagon Papers might be a good idea, but ...

The Post has just gone public with more than a million shares of stock sold. Stockholders have seven days to rescind their purchases, but only if something catastrophic happens in that time period.

Shutting down the Post and jailing the staff for contempt of court just might do it.

Bradlee realizes the era of hobnobbing with powerful politicians has come to a close, but Graham still likes the trappings of her position, especially her close friendship with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (a hyper Bruce Greenwood), the man who commissioned the Pentagon Papers report.

The verbal duels between Bradlee and Graham recall the playfully barbed competitions between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn from an earlier era.

Meryl Streep pumps her character Kay Graham full of contemplative angst in Steven Spielberg's "The Post." Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Hanks and Streep are joined by former Naperville resident Bob Odenkirk as Bradlee's trusted co-worker Ben Bagdikian, Sarah Paulson as Bradlee's understanding wife, and the ubiquitous Michael Stuhlbarg as the NYT's Abe Rosenthal.

Is "The Post" a great motion picture? Not quite.

First-time screenwriter Liz Hannah's screenplay hammers its talking points and exposition with little nuance.

The film dips into melodramatic schmaltz as John Williams' surprisingly pedestrian score gooses our emotions.

And those odd hairpieces?

Spielberg, now 70, rammed this production through in record time (he got the script in February) and directs "The Post" with the enthusiasm of an artist half his age.

The roving lens of Chicago's Columbia College grad Janusz Kaminski, who's photographed most of Spielberg's films, brings visual vitality to newsroom sets, right down to the old-fashioned, hot-metal linotype machines that actually print the news.

• • •

Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Michael Stuhlbarg

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Other: A 20th Century Fox release. Rated PG-13 for language, violence. At the Century 12 Evanston and AMC River East 21; expands throughout the suburbs on Jan. 12. 116 minutes