Film Review: The Post (2017)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Review by: Belle McIntyre
There are so many good reasons to see this timely, engrossingly directed story about the importance of a free press and the constant need to protect and defend it. Apparently Steven Spielberg felt that urgency as soon as our most recent presidential election delivered us Donald Trump and he rushed the film into production in just a year. However, it is equally (and timely) a story of female empowerment as experienced by the owner of the Washington Post, Katherine Graham (flawlessly portrayed by Meryl Streep). And, who does not love a tale of a principled whistle-blower who manages to speak truth to power. And then there is a fantastic ensemble cast headed by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.
The film opens with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) observing and reporting details of the situation on the ground in Vietnam and giving Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) the short version of the hopeless conditions he was witnessing. This work was for an internal document commissioned by McNamara under President Nixon. Shortly after their encounter he sees McNamara on a news feed saying the exact opposite and declaring to the world that things were going extremely well. The story of the copying and release of what would come to be known as the Pentagon Papers has it’s origins in that moment and it never fails to fascinate. It surely inspired Edward Snowden in the “everything old is new again” world we are living in today (or history repeating itself, if you prefer).
We are then plunged into the Washington Post newsroom headed by the charismatic and brash, Editor-in-Chief, Ben Bradley. The Post at the time was a small family-owned local newspaper founded by the father of Katherine Graham, who had inherited the position of publisher upon the suicide of her husband, Phil. This was not usual in the 1960’s and surely would not have happened in any circumstances other than family-ownership. It was not a job she wanted or was particularly suited for in the male-dominated, scrappy world of newspaper publishing. She was an accomplished and well-connected hostess with a reserved patrician way of speaking and behaving. That was considered a perfect job description for women of her class and status. So we see her ricocheting between endless lavish parties which she is frequently hosting to the urgency of the paper and trying to negotiate an IPO to help save the Post from irrelevance. She is surrounded by men who presume to speak for her and often over her.
When the Pentagon Papers are first brought to light by the New York Times, the ambitious and highly-competitive Bradlee is thoroughly energized and desperate to get in on the story, once the Times has been banned from further publishing by the courts. The timing could not have been worse for the financial future of the post on account of the pending IPO which could be cancelled at a moments notice if the paper were to do something deemed too risky for the survival of the paper. So when the Post actually obtains copies of the papers the pressure in opposite directions escalates to a fever pitch and serves as a wake up call to Graham. The balance of power between the suits and the newsroom lies squarely on her shoulders. The tensions in this intricate dance between principle, political and practical survival are registered in the most subtle and understated manner by the consummately ladylike Graham whose emerging confidence allows her to take the principled stand, which is emphatically the most difficult and painful one. It is particularly awkward as McNamara has been a close friend of the Grahams for years as well as her advisors and countless other Washington insiders who will surely consider this an act of betrayal. To watch her newly emboldened self fearlessly and calmly confront these men will certainly cause all of the women in the audience to silently cheer.
The nitty gritty details of the newsroom are vividly suggested by many scenes of old-fashioned typesetting, printing presses and papers being carried by conveyor belts, as well as the all night sifting through of the masses of papers which the editors had only hours to read and make sense of in order to write a coherent story which did not jeopardize the paper in the eyes of the law. It is rendered in riveting Spielbergian style and creates its own kind of suspense and involvement. The fact that this moment signaled a new energy and purpose for the Post which has been on an upward trajectory ever since and has rivaled the New York Times since the Post broke the Watergate scandal and brought down a president. I see it as an homage to a free press and a tribute to the amazing Katherine Graham and female empowerment. It is a thoroughly satisfying, beautifully executed piece of work. Terrific in all ways.