“The Post” is a poignant, fast-paced drama that could not be timelier; although it tells a story that is now more than 40 years old, history indeed repeats itself, and the film is socially and politically relevant in the Trump era. The film is multidimensional as well, tackling the problematic nature of access journalism, institutionalized sexism, the benefits and drawbacks of leaking classified information and the dangers of overt antagonism toward the press.
“The Post” details the story of Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the owner of The Washington Post, and firebrand editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). After The New York Times drops a bombshell leak of the Pentagon Papers - which outline the manner in which the United States government systematically lied about the Vietnam War - Bradlee manages to gain access to the papers himself, and Graham wrestles over whether to publish coverage or not. The Nixon administration had issued an injunction against members of the press to keep them from publishing the story, and Bradlee and Graham potentially face jail time if they violate the injunction.
Throughout “The Post,” it is underscored that both Bradlee and Graham have had cozy relationships with those in power: Bradlee with Jack Kennedy and Graham with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who commissioned the study leaked in the Pentagon Papers. Bradlee challenges Graham’s resistance to publishing the information, accusing her of protecting her friend McNamara; Graham retorts that Bradlee was never particularly critical of Kennedy. The blight of access journalism unfortunately continues today; many media figures are fearful of burning their bridges, their “access” to political elites, and therefore refrain from asking them difficult questions. “The Post” reminds us how important it is for the press to hold people in power accountable, rather than colluding with it. The film reads with a tinge of irony, as The Washington Post infamously ran 16 negative Bernie Sanders articles in 16 hours, and is viewed by many to uphold establishment views at any cost - but it is the moral conviction behind “The Post” rather than the institution of The Washington Post itself that is so powerful.
Streep is mesmerizing, as always; she plays an unlikely feminist heroine, Katherine Graham. Many feminist underdogs in films are portrayed as hardened fighters who go up against the odds with a will of iron. Katherine Graham, in contrast, is portrayed as a rather timid woman who has difficulty expressing herself and often resorts to her counsel for help. Her father, who had owned the paper, gave the paper to her husband and she never questioned this action - but when her husband committed suicide, she found herself unexpectedly in charge. Her competition and coworkers are intimidating – frequently, we see Graham take a deep breath before entering a smoke-filled room, crammed with 40 or 50 suited men, and she is the only one in a dress and heels; many of her colleagues are visibly annoyed that she owns the paper, feel that she shouldn’t be in charge, and openly question her authority. The moment Graham finally has the courage to put her foot down makes for powerful catharsis.
“The Post” also reminds us of the controversy that erupts every time that classified information is leaked. Daniel Ellsberg was viewed with much scrutiny when he leaked the Pentagon Papers, but history has looked upon him kindly for revealing the systematic lies told to citizens by their government. Only time will tell if the often-heated conversation surrounding Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning (who was recently released from prison by President Obama, and is incidentally running for Senate in Maryland) will eventually take the same tack. It is interesting to compare the old methodology of releasing leaks - the established press - and the new method - data dumping to the rather elusive WikiLeaks.
Finally, “The Post” reminds us of how necessary it is for the press to exercise the First Amendment and challenge establishment power when it goes astray - Nixon did his best to quash reporters, and it could be said that there is an attack on the press in the modern day as well, a smearing of well-researched sources as “fake news.”
Perhaps my only criticism of the film is that the reporters at The New York Times were the true trailblazers in the real-life story - it was they who first broke the Pentagon Papers and took the greatest risk. However, Katharine Graham and her paper makes for a more interesting and compelling story, so it is unsurprising Spielberg chose to center the film around her instead.