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Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” is an ode to the Fourth Estate and a look at a tumultuous time in American history.

Nixon is president of a country divided over the Vietnam War. The focus of the story is the 47-volume internal report, known as the Pentagon Papers, that Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) commissioned.

Activist Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys, “Burnt”) is disgusted at the lies that the government has told the public about the way the war is going. In 1971, he decides to release the top-secret documents.

The New York Times has the report, then is thwarted by an injunction. Now Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the executive editor of the Washington Post, wants to publish the documents.

Even though publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep) is friends with McNamara, she also understands Bradlee’s perspective. Still, she is afraid that the federal government might shut down the Post — her family’s newspaper is at stake. But Bradlee maintains that the documents must be published, and continues to argue with the understandably indecisive Graham.

If you’re looking for action that includes car chases and weapons, you won’t find it here. But the story does develop quickly, and it builds tension so well that it will affect even audiences who remember it.

Spielberg not only gives us interesting characters, but also keeps the atmosphere realistic. The scenes set in the newsroom have an authentic feel. Looming deadlines can create an air of drama, and that’s what unfolds beautifully here. Also, the dialogue and the camaraderie are believable, especially when the report lands in the hands of an unsuspecting reporter.

Speaking of authenticity: The real Pentagon Papers that Ellsberg copied are used in several scenes, including the sequences in which we see them scattered on the floor of Bradlee’s home.

Not surprisingly, both Streep and Hanks are terrific. They are convincing as colleagues who don’t always agree but who always respect each other.

Hanks is wonderful as the impassioned editor. It’s Streep who owns the film as she breathes life into another strong woman, just as she did as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” Graham is a socialite, to be sure. But she also is much more: Even though she lacks confidence at times, she is smart and up to the challenge that lies ahead.

Truly, this is an ensemble piece, with great performances all around, including several comedians, such as the entertaining Bob Odenkirk, in enjoyable in small roles.

Co-screenwriter Josh Singer also co-wrote the exemplary newspaper-driven story “Spotlight.”

Like “Spotlight,” it is set in the past. But “The Post” remains a timely film.


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