How the press, and the Pentagon Papers changed history
By Michelle D. Sinclair
Streep. Hanks. Spielberg. With Oscar-bait like that, The Post could have rested on its headlining laurels and cranked out a movie that would have made money and won recognition regardless.
Fortunately for history, the film is every bit as good as advertised. The classic book and movie All the President’s Men immortalized the most infamous event of the Nixon years, but the lesser known scandal that preceded it and positioned The Washington Post as a newspaper powerful enough to take on the president has faded from common knowledge. This is the story of the Pentagon Papers–both an indictment of five presidents lying to the public about the Vietnam War, and an exploration of the importance of a free press in sustaining democracy.
It’s 1971, and Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) is about to take The Washington Post from being a local, family-owned newspaper to a publicly-traded company. She’s understandably nervous–she inherited the company from her late husband, who inherited it from her father–and wants nothing to jeopardize the company she has loved her entire life. Meanwhile, the New York Times has obtained a top secret government study of the Vietnam War that taints the legacy of every administration since Truman. When the Times begins to publish the papers, Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) practically froths at the mouth over getting his hands on some of these documents.
The movie doesn’t shy away from illustrating the tectonic shift in gender roles taking place in this era. In fact, Tom Hanks said the film could have been called “Katharine” and been just as fitting. In the movie, Kay Graham starts out as very much a woman of her time, deferring to the men in the room, the male advisors and businessmen who have so much more experience in this world than she does. But the indignity of it all–men talking at, talking over, and talking for her–has a transformative effect. Streep does a masterful job of taking Kay on this journey. Watching this woman come into her own as the pressure inches higher and the voices around her grow louder is nothing short of thrilling.
Watching this woman come into her own as the pressure inches higher and the voices around her grow louder is nothing short of thrilling.
It wasn’t possible to film The Post at the old Washington Post building because it was torn down at the beginning of 2016 (I am a thirteen-year Post employee myself–my review is my personal opinion and does not represent the views of The Washington Post), but the filmmakers did a superb job of recreating the essence of the place. Several times, my heart skipped a beat at the pans of the building exterior before my eyes clocked the differences. And just like they distilled the hallmarks of the old building well enough to recreate the place, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks strike the right notes in recreating two larger-than-life figures in newspaper history. I didn’t know Katharine Graham, but I interacted with the late Ben Bradlee enough times to recognize the mannerisms in Hanks’ performance. Does Hanks look like Bradlee? Not really, and Meryl Streep resembles Mrs. Graham not at all, but between the excellent costuming, hair, and of course world-class acting, they embody the stellar working chemistry between Mrs. Graham and her “pirate” of an editor.
Spielberg sets a blistering pace, refusing to let his story wallow through a few days of American history. Even at that pace, the movie uses careful brushstrokes to paint the characters while also raising existential questions that resonate today: What exactly is the role of the press? How can the press, which depends on reporters gathering information and standing witness to events, do their jobs while also risking alienating the very people who give them access? And at what point does keeping information top secret stop serving the needs of the country, and start protecting the interests of the powerful?
Streep’s Katharine Graham uses an old quote of her husband’s (a quip that remains popular among us Post employees), referring to the newspaper as the “first rough draft of history.” Movies exist to entertain, and this one is more interested in telling Kay’s story than getting every bit of history onscreen (the New York Times people have some legitimate gripes about being presented as supporting players in this story). Overall, though The Post is an excellent polish of that first draft, ready for presenting to a new generation.
The Post is rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence. The film is in limited release until its national release January 11.