From the vantage point of 2018, it’s almost unbelievable to think The Washington Post was once considered just a “hometown paper.” Of course, its hometown of Washington, D.C. isn’t just any city. In the 1970s, the newspaper would be propelled to national recognition by revelations which rocked the U.S. government.
Most Americans became familiar with The Post after its history-making reveal of the Watergate scandal. The investigative journalism involved in that story was the center of the 1976 film “All the President’s Men.” Now, Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” sheds light on the paper’s role in uncovering government deception documented in the Pentagon Papers, a scandal which preceded Watergate.
The Post had been purchased during the Great Depression by financier Eugene Meyer. Meyer eventually hand-picked his son-in-law to lead the paper. Meyer’s daughter, Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), was forced to assume control after her husband’s suicide. Initially, things at The Post remained status quo. Graham, raised to be a successful wife, mother, and society matron, let her all-male board of directors, led by reassuring “Fritz” Beebe (Tracy Letts) and Arthur Parsons (a fictional character representing multiple board members and portrayed to dismissive, sexist perfection by Bradley Whitford), advise her regarding the paper’s operation.
“The Post” introduces Graham in 1971 when she and the board decided to take the company public. This was assumed to be a straightforward IPO with Graham and her children still maintaining control of the paper. But, as the film shows, the IPO timing and the news of the day will collide, asking more of Graham and her paper than anyone could have imagined.
Heading The Post’s daily publication during this time is editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). A veteran journalist, his main goal is trying to scoop The New York Times. Like so many of the men around Graham, Bradlee doesn’t welcome her inquiries into operations. He snaps, “Keep your finger out of my eye!” when she asks about the content of what was referred to as the paper’s “women’s section” (fashion, society news, home coverage). Taken aback, Graham bites her tongue in a manner indicating this isn’t the first time she’s had to refrain from retorting.
However, both Bradlee and the board will be forced to recognize Graham’s ownership of the paper when a challenge to the freedom of the press arises. Bradlee’s suspicions that The New York Times is onto a major find are confirmed when The Times publishes an initial story about the Pentagon Papers. Those classified documents detail decades of White House-sanctioned cover-ups regarding American involvement in Vietnam.
The focus of the report, created at the request of then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), detailed a war that top-ranking US officials privately admitted wasn’t winnable but publicly promoted as necessary and successful. Such duplicity leads Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a RAND Corporation employee who contributed to the report, to leak the information to The Times.
But, as soon as the story breaks, the Nixon White House moves to bar The Times from any further coverage. The Post’s Bradlee sees an opportunity to fill the void, plus make a name for his paper, if his staff can find the rest of the report. Bradlee also views the White House’s injunction against The Times as a direct attack on the American free press and the Constitution.
Fired up, Bradlee instructs his staff to follow every possible lead. But, if Bradlee obtains the scoop he wants, he will also have to consult with Graham and respect her authority.
Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s screenplay for “The Post” deals with history in a multi-layered fashion. Hannah’s original script focused mainly on the relationship between Graham and Bradlee. When director Spielberg became interested in the project, he brought in Singer (an Academy Award winner for the journalism film “Spotlight”) to include additional historic details. Together the two writers have produced a drama that delivers both as a political thriller and a character study of Bradlee and Graham. Subtly backing all the action is composer John Williams’ score, his 29th collaboration with Spielberg.
“The Post’s” screenplay nicely shows how the paper’s “hometown” reputation could be a detriment. There is a tricky dance between covering events and the development of potential relationships with the figures involved. Both Bradlee and Graham experience this first hand. The realization they were lied to by people they knew and trusted is a blow. But, it also puts into perspective the value Graham and Bradlee place on the necessity of a free press charged with reporting the facts no matter who is involved.
The life-altering decisions made by the principal players- Ellsberg, reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), Graham, and Bradlee- are presented not as impulsive, but as the product of great internal deliberation. Ellsberg hesitates more than once before exiting RAND with the files. Bagdikian debates whether to track down a lead. Graham hopes to maintain friendships and social connections that may be damaged by the files. And Bradlee, the most impulsive of the four, is nudged by his wife (Sarah Paulson, projecting quiet strength) to realize the personal and professional stakes for Graham.
Graham’s evolution during the course of the film reflects the women’s movement of 1971 while speaking to issues still facing women today. Her struggle to assert her voice in a way that remains in line with her social standing is subtly conveyed by Streep’s nuanced mannerisms- glances, movements and quiet moments. Friends and family (including Graham’s daughter and son) have confirmed how successfully Streep captures Graham’s persona.
Spielberg visually frames the drama to indicate the scarcity of women in leadership roles in business and government. Graham, who became the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, is shown as the only woman in the board meetings. She is the only female allowed through the double doors into the American Stock Exchange floor the day of the IPO. And, she is one of the few women in attendance at the Supreme Court hearings.
To enhance the film’s accuracy, Spielberg uses historical sources. Nixon’s personal taped conversations regarding the Pentagon Papers are heard. The pre-computer newspaper layout and printing process is shown, with major headlines highlighted as the presses shake the newsroom floor. The mutual regard between newspaper and network journalism of the day is captured as The Post’s news staff respectfully watches actual broadcasts by the “most trusted man in America,” Walter Cronkite, regarding the news they are living.
Steven Spielberg had been working on his upcoming “Ready Player One” when Hannah’s original script came to his attention. He found the real-life characters so compelling, and the drama so timely given today’s mix of journalism and fake news, that he took a break from “Ready Player One” to make “The Post.” In only 11 weeks Spielberg has created an historical drama that resonates regarding many contemporary issues including politics, American democracy, and women’s rights. And, his cast, led by Hanks and Streep, has submerged themselves in their characters, bringing to the screen a look at real-life Americans who took great personal risks for the belief #JournalismMatters.