Full disclosure: I am a sucker for movies about journalism. Spotlight, All the President's Men, The Paper, The Pelican Brief, His Girl Friday, the list goes on and on. So I admit that I may have gone into The Post, which is nominated in the best picture Oscar category this year, a bit predisposed to liking it. Plus, I’m all for movies that are about freedom of the press, those which follow investigative journalists uncovering scandals and dispensing truths, the media as the fourth estate, the importance of the first amendment, and all that jazz.
Let’s face it, we are living in an era when freedom of the press is suddenly being questioned, legitimate news is deemed as fake news by those who simply don’t like it, and anyone with a cell phone can tweet a falsehood as if it’s fact. This movie is of the moment.
But aside from my journalism bias and the timeliness factor, I assure you, The Post is a winner. It’s hard to go wrong with Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, not to mention Sarah Paulson and Bradley Whitford—all stellar actors.
Based on a true story, the movie takes place in the summer of 1971 when The Washington Post (following the New York Times) uncovered and published excerpts from the so-called “Pentagon Papers.” The papers were top secret government documents, discovered by a military analyst named Daniel Ellsberg (played by Matthew Rhys). After being on the ground in Vietnam and finding out that not everyone in the government was publicly saying what they privately thought about the war, Ellsberg became determined to share the truth.
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While working at the Rand Corporation, he discovered the Pentagon Papers and leaks them to a reporter at The Times and later The Post. The papers revealed things about the Vietnam War that had not been told to the public—such as the fact that several government officials, including presidents, knew the war was doomed to fail but still kept it going, even as American troops were being killed.
Hanks plays Ben Brandlee, The Post’s whip-smart editor who has a healthy combative relationship with his publisher, the patrician Katharine Graham, played convincingly by Meryl Streep (but then again, does she ever not play a role convincingly?) Despite the fact that the White House (under Richard Nixon) placed an injunction against The New York Times to prevent them from printing the papers in the name of national security, Bradlee wanted to wave the freedom of the press flag and print it anyway.
His eagerness was partially due to patriotism and partly because of his competitive streak—he wanted to put The Post, then known as somewhat of a little city paper—on par with The New York Times as a bastion of national journalism.
Graham was not so sure. She was a believer in muckraking and also wanted to make her paper a major contender, but she was about to take the company public and was worried that defying the injunction could put her and Bradlee in jail, or harm the price of the company’s stock. Complicating matters, she was friends with the Attorney General Robert McNamara, who publicly supported the war. Printing the papers would surely ruin their relationship.
There’s an interesting side story here about the dangers of journalists being too friendly with the people they are supposed to cover. When Bradlee criticized Graham for being too close to McNamara, she crisply reminded him that he was pals with John F. Kennedy.
The film followed Bradlee and his staff’s pursuit of the papers and their revelations, in retro journalistic glory—there were old fashioned pay phone calls, scribbled notes, furtive meetings in alleys and motel rooms, mysterious boxes of papers being transported from point A to point B, and a frantic rush to meet printing press deadlines. Even the cinematography glamorized the whole process with artsy close ups of the type and the printing presses rolling out the papers. It was like porn for old school journalism junkies.
Meanwhile, the film also followed Graham, from the male-dominated board rooms at her office and smoke-filled business lunches, to fancy dinner parties at her home and more personal moments such as tucking her grandkids into bed. Along the way we saw her self doubt slowly give way to her embracement of her position and finally, her triumphant decision to publish the papers, much to the chagrin of her financial advisors.
Streep truly shined as Graham. Not only did she channel the socialite publisher, with her coiffed hair, party caftans, and prim skirt suits at work, but she also made us feel Graham’s uncertainty. We worried alongside her.
Having inherited the paper from her husband, who inherited it from her father, Graham was surrounded by men in control and men who wanted to be in control, many of whom didn't seem to take her seriously. But she was smart and savvy and ultimately a woman in the throes of discovering and coming to terms with her power.
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At one point when one of her advisors (Whitford) said, “People are concerned about having a woman in charge of the paper—that she doesn’t have the resolve to make the tough decisions,” Streep said simply, “Thank you for your frankness Arthur,” and left the room.
When Graham finally made her decision and said “Let’s Go, Let’s Go! Let’s publish,” you really felt how she finally embraced her power and her independence.
It is a timely message indeed.
And, by the way, the Supreme Court ended up ruling in favor of freedom of the press, declaring that the newspapers who printed excerpts from the Pentagon Papers had the right—and possibly even the duty—to do so.