Directed by Stephen Spielberg; starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks; screenplay by Liz Hanna and Josh Singer
The President of the United States is arrogant, vengeful, thin-skinned and unstable, the country is engaged in a seemingly endless war on the other side of the globe. Men in high places collude to keep the truth from the American people. The freedom of the press is threatened, both within and without. Women, even those in positions of authority, are talked over, dismissed and ignored. Protesters take to the streets. Secrets are leaked, and corruption exposed.
No, this is not the America of 2008, but of 1971, a time some of us still remember, when a brave young whistle-blower named Daniel Ellsberg stole and leaked what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, and after a court stopped The Times from publishing, to The Washington Post.
We know the plot, we know the ending, but still Spielberg manages to keep the tension building: the scenes move fast, as if towards an urgent deadline. The papers are stolen, copied. At the same time, we learn that The Post is about to release its first public stock offering in a crucial attempt to raise capital. The Times publishes the first installment of the papers and is immediately hit with a court injunction that stops further publication. “Jefferson just rolled over in his grave,” says Tom Hanks, gruff and abrasive as Bill Bradlee, The Post’s legendary editor. A package with the first section of the volatile papers is delivered anonymously to The Post, dumped in a Thom McCann shoe box on a reporter’s desk. Under-sung hero Ben Badgikian (Bob Odenkerk) is sent to track down Daniel Ellsberg in a sleazy motel and brings the rest of the treasure trove back to DC in a cardboard box. Will The Post publish the papers, threatening the stock offering and risking jail time for the editor and publisher?
The Post is about many things: the overreach of government, the importance of a free press, the dictates of conscience, the parallels to our current situation– more themes than can adequately be addressed in a short review. But, primarily, the film is a story of the awakening and evolution of consciousness in one woman — Katherine Graham, owner and publisher of The Washington Post.
It was a job she never expected to have. Meryl Streep plays Katherine Graham with all the genius we have come to expect: soft voice, stiff hair, middle-aged wardrobe; hesitant and unsure, but resolved to carry on the family legacy. In an early scene, an alarm clock rings, and Katherine jerks awake, sitting bolt upright in a bed covered with books and papers, and puts her face in her hands The Washington Post had been owned by Katherine’s father, Eugene Mayer, who chose her husband, Phillip Graham, to take over the paper when he retired. But Eugene died and Phillip Graham committed suicide, leaving Katherine, charming society matron and famed Washington hostess, to do a job she felt completely unprepared for. “I never expected to be in this situation,” she confesses to her daughter. “My father chose my husband. That was the way it was supposed to be.”
Katherine walks through shadowy rooms full of men in dark suits– a Washington club dining room, the boardroom of The Post, an office in the New York Stock Exchange. Everywhere, she, the only woman in the room, is talked over, put down, ignored. She is soft, placatory, nice. But Streep lets us see the steely determination behind the unshed tears in her eyes. Will The Washington Post publish or not? Katherine has the final call.
In a wonderful scene, Katherine, hieratic in a gold caftan, is hosting a retirement party, attended by Washington insiders, at her elegant townhouse. Bradlee, the paper’s lawyers, and several board members interrupt the festivities, all arguing, all trying to persuade her to their point of view. The bombshell story has been written; Bradlee is passionately in favor of publishing: “if we don’t publish, the country loses. Nixon wins.” The lawyers are afraid of retaliation from the White House, the board members dread the collapse of the stock offering. “All we want is what’s best for you,” one of the suits tells Katherine. Katherine hesitates, turns to trusted advisor Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), “What do you think I should do?” Fritz is against publishing. Katherine turns away, takes a shaky breath, steps into her power: “Let’s go, let’s do it. Let’s publish.” And when a board member still protests, she turns on him: “It’s my company. My decision stands.”
With Katherine’s decision, the copy is edited in a half hour, the presses roll. There are wonderful shots of linotype machines clacking, printers in aprons and paper hats, hot lead type, composite trays. Through the camera we grasp the permanence and primary importance of the word; what we see here is the opposite of “fake news.” The whole building thunders to life; on a floor above the pencils rattle in a cup on a reporter’s desk, the building shakes with the power of the press, as the country will soon be shaken by the revelations on the front page.