Racking up eight awards and 54 nominations from film critic associations across the country, The Post is opening to great acclaim this holiday season. Directed and co-produced by Steven Spielberg, The Post takes viewers through one of the most traumatic periods in American political history – discovering that our government lied to us about an undeclared war through every administration from Harry Truman in the 1950s to Richard Nixon in the 1970s.
Most people recognized the New York Times as a world-class newspaper in 1971. Few would have said the same about the Washington Post. When CIA military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked the classified history of the Vietnam War to Neil Sheehan at the NYTimes, American citizens were stunned by the revelations; and the fourth estate was placed in a harsh light as the government accused the NY Times of publishing information detrimental to national security.
Historical events set the stage for this clash between government and a free press
As a journalistic competitor, the Washington Post had to get its hands on those controversial documents, and publish them. Katharine (Kay) Graham’s relationship with editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) was strained greatly because his ambition for the newspaper conflicted with her fear for the safety of the Post if it published classified documents. To further complicate matters, the Post was about to go public, and owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) was cobbling together banks to finance the IPO.
Historical events set the stage for this clash between government and a free press; Spielberg’s direction does justice to the issues and the people involved. As usual, Meryl Streep has done her homework, and we see Kay Graham in all her fragile splendor – living always in the shadow of her father and husband, an elegant doyenne of Washington society without the confidence to run the Post after the suicide of her husband. Post executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) gives her more respect that most men in her circle, but they clash because of different management styles, despite their long friendship.
As they argue with each other and the newspaper’s attorneys, Graham is conflicted by her close friendship with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) who authorized the writing of the Pentagon Papers. Bradlee looks often at a photograph in his home, featuring Ben and second wife Tony Bradlee with their close friends, John and Jacqueline Kennedy. Where does a journalist draw the line between friendship and obligation to the citizens who deserve to know?
Most people knew something about the NYTimes controversy once excerpts from the Pentagon Papers were published in that newspaper; far fewer people realized what the Washington Post had at stake if publication in its newspaper was found to be treason. Among many fascinating moments in The Post is the image of citizens who thronged the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court because they were concerned about our constitutional right to a free press, rather than to harangue the Court on partisan single issues.
Tension builds as executive editor Ben Bradlee searches for Neil Sheehan (Justin Swain), the famed NYTimes reporter who has gone silent; where is he and what is he working on? Post journalist Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) roots around for Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), who is in hiding after the NYTimes publishes articles by Sheehan; Bagdikian calls from pay phones in an alley. The tapping of phone lines had a dreary history long before cell phones and signal towers.
Since the Nixon administration was alleging treason, the Supreme Court granted certiorari immediately so it could review the appellate court’s opinion. And once the Court’s ruling was announced in a 6 to 3 decision, Kay Graham left quietly, avoiding microphones and cameras. Spielberg shows this shy woman descending the steps while dozens of younger women look upon her as a new role model.
Should a national security label be allowed to shield political misconduct?
Those were different times, so technically this is a period piece, but the issues have never gone away. What is your duty as a citizen, and to whom is it owed? Should a national security label be allowed to shield political misconduct? How do you summon the courage to risk everything that matters – your late husband’s legacy, your children’s future as heirs to a family fortune, your responsibility to the journalists in your employ?
Meryl Streep’s performance alone is enough reason to see this film. Add Spielberg’s direction, John Williams’ music choices, and the script by Oscar winner Josh Singer and newcomer Elizabeth Hannah, as well as the chance to see classic printing presses in action with Linotype operators meticulously placing each block of type – well, staying home is not an option.