Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 55 in.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 0; Language 2; Sex 4/Nudity 0. Our star rating (1-5): 5
For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed,
nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.
Director Steven Spielberg has gifted us with thrillers in many genres—sci-fi (E.T. and Close Encounters; war (Saving Pvt. Ryan & The War Horse); fantasy (BFG); spy (Bridge of Spies); history (Amistad & Lincoln), to name just a few—but none are as timely as his new political thriller The Post. The film serves as a strong antidote to the poison currently being spewed forth about the press’s White House reportage being “fake news.” The filmmakers, of course, intended this, but what they could not have planned on is the film’s relevance to the huge groundswell of women who comprise the #MeToo Movement that has sprung up in reaction to the longstanding abuse of women by film producer Harvey Weinstein—this due to the fact that a key figure in the film is Katherine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), the first woman to become the publisher of a major newspaper in America.
Let’s deal with the freedom of the press issue first. The film begins in the mid-60’s with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) in Vietnam embedded with a patrol that is ambushed during the night by unseen assailants. He is working for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) who wants to assess the prospects of the war. Back in America Ellsberg knows that his boss does not believe the war is winnable, so he is upset when the Secretary lies to the press that the war is going well. In 1971 Ellsberg becomes even more disturbed when he reads the series of papers that McNamara has commissioned revealing that the government has misleading the public for over 20 years about Vietnam. As he reads, the film shows news clips of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, every one of them lying to the American people about the Asian nation and the growing war there. Sneaking the papers out of the Pentagon, he and two fellow Rand Corporation employees make copies of the papers, and he turns them over to the New York Times.
In Washington D.C. Kay Graham is getting ready with lawyers and advisors for her family-owned company to go public because the ailing paper is in financial need. Also, she and Executive Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) are discussing what to do about their reporter being banned from covering the upcoming wedding of President Nixon’s daughter. (We never see President Nixon in a close-up scene, but scattered through the film there are long exterior shots of the President, framed by a window of the oval office, talking on the telephone with various members of his staff.)
The Post’s lack of access to the wedding will soon pale in the face of an upcoming scoop in The New York Times that they get wind of. Kay’s good friend Sec. McNamara had warned her that the New York newspaper was about to publish something involving him that was unflattering, but would reveal no details. Then comes The Time’s story about The Pentagon Papers proving that all the U.S. presidents had believed the Vietnam War to be unwinnable. The story upsets Bradlee because it is such an important scoop by a rival, but then Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell accuses The Times of violating the Espionage Act, and a judge orders a halt to the publishing of the Papers.
Bradlee, seeing his opportunity to pick up on the story, orders reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) to find out where Ellsberg is hiding and obtain the Papers for The Post. Kay is not so gung ho on this because she is worried that publishing the Papers could harm her plans to sell stock in the Post–all of her advisers oppose Bradlees’s intention. They point out to Kay the contract’s clause that says that the banks can withdraw from the deal if there is a major problem that arises within a week of the stock being issued. Being sued by the government definitely would be considered such a problem, they assure her.
Ben Bagdikian, after much effort, manages to find Ellsberg and gets him to agree to allow them to publish the papers. The thousands of pages require two large boxes, so Ben has to buy an airline seat for them as well as for himself, he not daring to let them out of his sight during his journey back to Washington. At Kay’s dinner party where her friend Sec. McNamara is one of the guests, Bradlee shows up to inform her that they are about to receive the Papers. They are delivered in secret the next day—of all places to Kay’s house!
There is a touch of humor as Bradlee and his staff arrive to sort through the two boxes of the Papers. Kay’s young granddaughter is stationed outside at her lemonade stand. Throughout the next several scenes the young entrepreneur makes quite a profit selling her beverage to those who gather for both the work of examining the Papers and who attend her grandmother’s social gatherings.
Working against a close at hand deadline, Bradlee confronts his troubled boss with the decision about publishing the Papers. The lawyers they have hired strongly advise her not to publish. Nixon, who already hates her and the newspaper, will vigorously prosecute her and Bradlee, the penalty under the Espionage Act possibly being up to 20 years imprisonment. All her business advisors and board members counsel against publishing because they are convinced the new partners will withdraw from the deal, thus ensuring that The Post will go into bankruptcy-some are already questioning the deal. Kay also feels pulled toward a negative answer by her long friendship with Robert McNamara. She had confronted him with the disturbing news about the vast difference between his private and his public views on the war. He had justified his lying by the usual political doublespeak. Kay waffles up to the very last minute as, over at the Post’s press room, the staff, having the day’s edition already set in linotype and loaded onto the huge press, wait to hear from Ben Bradlee about whether it’s a Go or No Go.
The second major issue, that of relating to #MeToo, is the way that screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, plus Meryl Streep’s’ subtle acting, depict Katherine Graham’s journey from a happy housewife married to the brilliant and politically well-connected Philip Graham to a self-confident leader asserting her authority. At meetings we see that Kay is the only woman in the room (and at staff meetings in Ben Bradlees’s office Carrie Coon’s reporter Meg Greenfield is the only female present). Kay seems uncertain where to sit at a meeting, and when she tries to add a piece of information to the discussion, the chairman ignores her, so that it is her male associate who provides the sought-after information. At another meeting when the public stock offering is being discussed, she overhears her associate talking just outside the meeting room about potential investors being uncertain that a company led by a woman will be profittable.
In one very moving scene Kay talks in her kitchen with her daughter Lally (Alison Brie) about her past life, pointing out she and everyone else had accepted the view that women belonged in the home and not in business. Her father had given the post of editor and publisher not to her but to her husband Phil, even the majority of the stock. It was only because of Phil’s death (a messy affair caused by his bipolar disorder that involved adultery and a possible divorce, hospitalization, and his killing himself with a shotgun—none of this covered in the film) that she had been thrust into the leadership at The Post. Lally offers both sympathy and her full support, her love and admiration for Kay increasing.
Thus, as the moment of decision draws closer and Kay is pulled in opposite directions by her editor and her business associates, we see by Ms. Streep’s subtle changes in her voice and mannerisms that Kay the leader is emerging from Kay the meek observer. Even her clothing changes from muted blues and grays to a white and golden gown at a party and a brightly colored dress at the end of the film. She tells an associate who talks patronizingly to her that she wants his advice, but SHE will make the decision. When the moment of decision arrived, I wanted to break out in applause (the audience did in fact while the end credits rolled). The words of James Russell Lowell came to mind, “Once to every man (sic) and nation, comes the moment to decide/In the strife of truth and falsehood for the good or evil side…”
The historic events following Katherine Graham’s decision to side with editor Ben Bradlee to publish The Pentagon Papers are quickly covered, taking us inside the stately hall of the Supreme Court where the government tries to argue that the Papers publication had jeopardized the security of the U.S. Back at the Post’s newsroom Meg Greenfield receives the Court’s decision over the telephone and relays it to the anxious staff. Down in the press room Kay and Bradlee chat and walk out together. Then we see another night-time long shot of Nixon, followed by a short sequence of shots at a building that will soon become known throughout the world.
The film is a good parable not only about freedom of the press, but also of courage and of weighing friendship against the larger common welfare. Not only Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham consider the possibility of long jail terms for violating the U.S. Espionage Act, but so does Daniel Ellsberg when he says to reporter Ben Bagdikian, “Wouldn’t you go to prison to stop this war?” The reporter replies, “Theoretically, sure.” For Ellsberg it was no theoretical matter! And Kay’s dilemma of publishing material that will damage the career of a good friend is well handled, by remarks that Bradlee makes about their friendship, several photographs that Kay displays at one end of her living room, and several scenes in which she and McNamara are together. How would you feel about revealing the truth or protecting the reputation and career of a close friend? Each precludes the other.
Once you can obtain this film on DVD, the film’s ending would be a delightful way of preparing for the second of a double-feature, All the President’s Men. At a time when the credibility of a free press is under strong attack, leading millions of Americans to distrust all forms of the media except for one that supports their views, this film is not just timely but necessary. It is fitting that someone quotes Phil Graham, who said in a speech that journalism is “the rough draft of history.” And so it is, as historians seeking original sources in their research will testify. Our democracy is truly in peril if the press is either muzzled by fear of the law and its penalties, or, and this is still another perceptive theme, the press becoming too close and friendly with hose in power. Ben Bradlee, observing how Phil and Kay Graham had been good friends of both the Kennedys and the Johnsons, talks about this, saying that reporters must choose between friendship and reporting the truth—and a good reporter chooses the latter. What a film! The longer I keep writing about it, the more I recall of its insights.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the February issue of Visual Parables. If you find this review helpful, please help us out by ordering an issue or a year’s subscription at The Store section of this site.