It’s 1971 and all is not well at The Washington Post. Publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) wonders if she should allow the family-owned paper to go public. She also struggles to establish her authority in a business that is very much a man’s world. Meanwhile, editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is afraid The New York Times will publish a major story, a fabulous scoop that will make The Post look second rate.
Soon, both Graham and Bradlee learn the truth. The Times has gained access to a secret report revealing how presidents since Truman have kept hidden the true scope of the country’s involvement in Vietnam. After the Times publishes stories based on the report, known as the Pentagon Papers, the Nixon government obtains an injunction against the paper barring any further publication.
The film’s plot revolves around Bradlee’s brash attempts to publish the Pentagon Papers, whatever the cost, and Graham’s fears for the financial future of the Post. Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks show their talents at giving depth to their characters’ strengths and foibles; director Steven Spielberg demonstrates his own skill at teasing out suspense, even in a story about newsroom squabbles. The movie did drag somewhat, however, in rather undeveloped scenes between Graham and her daughter.
I was surprised to learn that The Post represents the first time Spielberg has directed both Hanks and Streep in a feature. Weren’t they all part of Kramer vs. Kramer, Castaway, Saving Private Ryan, or maybe Out of Africa? Okay, I guess not.
I wasn’t completely surprised to learn that Spielberg produced the film in record time in order to comment on the current state of the press in the United States. While set in 1971, The Post is really about the duty of the press when faced by an irascible president known for his animosity towards “mainstream” media.
Beyond drawing large dots between the Nixon and Trump eras, the screenwriters tie in other contemporary themes. Graham agonizes over her paper’s future, but her concern develops into a bold confidence, highlighting how she, too, has a voice and can be a model of leadership for other women.
The film also stresses how Bradlee and Graham discover the way in which both Republican and Democratic administrations were bipartisan when it came to lying about Vietnam. They debate if their close friendships with Democratic leaders such as President Kennedy, President Johnson, and former Secretary of State Robert McNamara compromised their impartiality. In this way, Spielberg offers a clear warning to journalists—and maybe even to fellow celebrities—about the dangers of cozying up with politicians.
Fortunately, such weighty themes do not overwhelm the film. In fact, the production designers provide a delightful tribute to 1970s fashions and pre-computer newspapers. Meryl Streep carries herself proudly in flouncy blouses with big bows while journalists pound away on manual typewriters and draw deeply on their cigarettes. The camera focuses lovingly on typesetters composing the different parts of the front page by hand, with no electronics in sight. Blue and grey colors give a nostalgic hue to each scene while keeping the overall tone crisp and fresh.
In our “fake news” era, The Post reminds us of the role of the press in holding our leaders accountable. But at a time when many Americans don’t, or won’t, read historically reputable papers like the Times or the Post, will many viewers even consider seeing The Post?
Judging by the age of the audience in the theater where I saw the film, I’m afraid The Post will attract mostly older viewers who 1) like me, have vague recollections of the Pentagon Papers, and 2) feel at home with any movie involving Spielberg, Hanks, or Streep. And that is unfortunate, as The Post deals with an important chapter in American history, one we could all benefit from revisiting. (20th Century Fox)
About the Author
Otto Selles teaches French at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., and attends Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.