NEWS — Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Kay Graham star in “The Post.”
Herald Photo / Niko Tavernise - Twentieth Century Fox
NEWS — Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Kay Graham star in “The Post.” Herald Photo / Niko Tavernise - Twentieth Century Fox

Those who don’t know “fake news” from real news, or why journalists have a watchdog role in covering public officials, or why freedom of the press is vital, could learn the answer to all three by watching “The Post.”

Steven Spielberg’s new film about how the Washington Post handled the publishing of the so-called “Pentagon papers” in 1971 is not only educational and informative but also entertaining and terribly timely.

It’s not perfect because the screenplay feels rushed with some poorly drawn characters, and a few of the premises fall apart, and it ultimately becomes more focused on a proto-feminist storyline.

But it’s so rare to see real events portrayed in such an entertaining manner that it sometimes feels as if Spielberg (even better with “Bridge of Spies” and “Lincoln”) is the only one even attempting to do so.

The first point is to understand the importance of the “Pentagon papers,” a classified study that Defense Secretary Robert McNamara commissioned to detail the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam between 1945-1967 for future academics to dissect.

You know, the stuff the government wasn’t telling the public.

Like covert ops and rigged elections over those years and ultimately realizing that this was an unwinnable war by 1965 but still sending young men to die in Vietnam for years to come.

Uncovering such facts — and that they were covered up by presidents from Truman through Nixon — is the stuff that investigative reporters’ dreams are made of, and it’s still one of the triumphs of the New York Times.

Yes, the Times. The film goes to great lengths to explain that the Times broke the story, and the Washington Post and editor Ben Bradlee are going to great lengths to “get back in the game,” as Tom Hanks tells us in his hard-bitten newsman voice as a competitive Bradlee.

He tries a little too hard with the accent, but it’s still a winning portrayal of a man leading equally competitive reporters in a newsroom where you can hear the click-clacking of typewriters, smell the newsprint and feel the tension of reporters who have been scooped and are playing catchup.

That race is where much of the fun comes from, watching as reporters plug coins into pay phones and furiously scribble notes and take secretive meetings.

“The Post” has a great cast, like Bob Odenkirk as hungry reporter Ben Bagdikian; Bruce Greenwood as an odd-duck McNamara; Matthew Rhys as “Pentagon papers” provider Daniel Ellsberg and Jesse Plemons as a company lawyer trying to keep the paper’s staff out of prison.

That’s because the administration doesn’t want to be humiliated, and one of Spielberg’s best decisions is the use of White House tapes to let us hear President Nixon voice his displeasure with stories by journalists he considered his “enemies.”

Tulsa’s Tracy Letts is excellent as always as the Post’s chairman of the board guiding publisher Kay Graham through the process of taking the company public at the same time as deciding whether they will buck a government injunction against them publishing — the first in history.

Meryl Streep gives one of her most restrained performances, soft-voiced as a D.C. party hostess early but who through the film’s events must increasingly take control and make critical decisions in a world ruled by men who clearly see her as not their equal.

But she intelligently portrays this personal growth in a way that looks like a small step but is actually quite a leap in depicting the incremental changing of women’s roles in society nearly 50 years ago.

“The Post” screenplay, by first-timer Liz Hannah and “Spotlight” scripter Josh Singer, never has the energy or the uncovering-secrets excitement of “All the President’s Men,” the Post’s shining moment in journalism depicted in one of the great American movies.

That’s largely because it can’t due to the circumstances, but consider the importance of these events.

If they don’t take place, do we even have the Watergate reporting by Washington Post strengthened by its “Pentagon papers” victory?

Would we even have the book and the film and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein still out there dogging public officials who need to be watched closely?

Probably not. So watch what happens in “The Post” because it’s pretty important to U.S. history, and see if you aren’t entertained, too.