At once a gripping fact-based period newspaper drama and a timely tale of female empowerment in a male-dominated world, Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” issues a message relevant to an age when untruths pour from the Oval Office, journalists are summarily attacked as fakes and phonies, and women have begun to speak openly about their mistreatment at the hands of arrogant, powerful men. Some will dismiss it as liberal pleading, and even some who agree with the points it’s making may feel that it’s too on-the-nose. Though about events that unfolded nearly half a century ago, however, it delivers a warning about governmental mendacity and threats to a free press that resonates today perhaps as much as ever, and under Steven Spielberg’s expert hands it tells its story with precision, dramatic impact and a predictable level of sheer cinematic skill.

The film can be seen as a prequel of sorts to “All the President’s Men,” ending with the Watergate burglary that began Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 film. Its subject is the publication of the infamous Pentagon Papers, the massive study of the Vietnam War that proved that the government had been systematically deceiving the American people about the conflict. Its emphasis is on the Washington Post’s role in the 1971 episode, in which the Nixon Administration attempted to suppress the release of that classified document, which had been surreptitiously copied from the files of the Rand Corporation by researcher Daniel Ellsberg, who provided it to the press.

To set the stage, the film begins with Ellsberg’s work in Vietnam, where, as played by Matthew Rhys, he was documenting how poorly the war was going—an assessment he finds is shared by President Johnson’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who commissioned the report. McNamara’s public statements that the war was going well disturbed Ellsberg, and the continuance of those false assurances into the Nixon years encouraged him to take the document to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan.

It is in fact the Times that publishes the first installment of the Papers, a scoop that aggressive Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) watches enviously. When the Nixon Administration files suit against the Times and its editor Abe Rosenthal (Michael Stuhlbarg) to compel it to cease publication, Bradlee, through his reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), who knows Ellsberg and sees his hand in the release, works to get his hands on the document.

Much of the enjoyment to be had from “The Post” lies in the nuts-and-bolts of the paper’s acquisition of the papers and the staff’s rushed efforts to get the material in the pages into publishable form. Hanks and Odenkirk, along with a superb ensemble of actors and actresses playing the newsroom staff, have great fun with these scenes even if Hanks can’t match the grouchy authority Jason Roberts brought to Bradlee in Pakula’s film.

But that story is made more complex by the addition of a second thread centered on Post publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), who was thrust unwillingly into her position by the suicide of her husband and faced with a decision as to whether to continue the publication of the material and invite the administration’s wrath. A party-giving socialite who hobnobbed with the Washington elite—including McNamara, whom she considered a friend—Graham was part of a journalistic establishment that largely cooperated with the government. (So, in fact, was Bradlee, who had been cozy with JFK.) In the summer of 1971, moreover, she was involved in an effort to take the Post public in an IPO whose value could be damaged by a legal action against the paper. And, of course, she was a woman, and so considered by her all-male counselors (played by stalwarts such as Tracy Letts and Bradley Whitford) as not really the right person to be making decisions on such a potentially catastrophic matter.

Spielberg’s picture is thus not just a crackerjack newspaper tale about getting the story and putting it out. It’s also about the change that occurred in American journalism during the 1970s, when the friendliness between publishers and editors on the one hand and governmental power players on the other became adversarial as investigative reporting took center stage. And it’s about how a woman became head of a major news organization and, despite protests from many of the men around her, took a stand that ultimately became a bedrock of press freedom from government control.

Streep manages all the layers of complexity in Graham’s character with the consummate degree of nuance audiences have come to expect of her. She captures the woman’s insecurity, her timorousness in the face of her board’s blustering, her growing unease with her party-going friends (including McNamara, whose manner Greenwood captures without turning him into caricature—it’s notable that he once also played JFK, the man who brought McNamara to Washington), and her ultimate steeliness in the face of warnings from her advisors (including Jesse Plemons as the paper’s nervous lawyer) that a decision to publish could be ruinous. Streep’s scenes with Hanks are especially enjoyable, as the two debate how to proceed with an increasing measure of mutual respect and affection.

Among the supporting cast Odenkirk and Greenwood are especially noteworthy, but Rhys, Letts, Stuhlbarg, Whitford and Plemons all have their moments in the sun, while Sarah Paulson (as Bradlee’s wife), Alison Brie (as Graham’s daughter), and Carrie Coon (as spitfire Post reporter Meg Greenfield) lead the rest of an estimable ensemble. As one expects of a Spielberg film, the technical side of things is aces. Production designer Rick Carter appears to revel in the old-fashioned “Stop the presses!” atmosphere, with the one-page-at-a-time Xerox machines, pay phones and seventies fashions (courtesy of costumer Ann Roth) omnipresent without undue exaggeration, and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski serves it all up with his usual efficiency, while the editing by Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar keeps things moving at a good clip without sacrificing clarity. John Williams’ score is hardly one of his more memorable efforts, but it will serve.

“The Post” can’t match the immediacy and visceral excitement of “All the President’s Men,” which told a tale of malfeasance in high places and high-wire journalism still fresh in the memory of its audience. But it ably celebrates an episode that was instrumental in defining the reach of the First Amendment in the face of governmental efforts to restrict it, and if it might seem rather self-righteous in delivering its message, that’s a forgivable flaw in view of the importance of the constitutional principle at a time when it’s coming under increasing assault.