In 1971, The Washington Post gained national acclaim for its bold publication of secrets that the U.S. government kept about the Vietnam War. Steven Spielberg centers “The Post” on the leadership of the Washington Post, still a small “local paper” at the time, and its decisions leading up to the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Though not an entirely accurate documentation of history, “The Post” is nonetheless a satisfying and timely depiction that traces the weeks of breaking headlines and the eventual release of the confidential documents.
The film hones in on Washington Post publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep) and the Post’s executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), who struggle to publish the Pentagon Papers. These highly classified papers entail a research project conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense. They reveal that the government knew the Vietnam War was, in all likelihood, a lost cause. With an all-star crew, Spielberg conveys an important message of the press’s freedom in the First Amendment, interwoven with underlying themes of female empowerment and the balance of work and personal life for high-profile individuals like Graham.
Katharine Graham is, needless to say, a complicated character in her own right. Luckily, Meryl Streep’s skilled performance handles the role’s complexity with care. Streep is a natural as she evokes the entertainer within and the maternal side of Graham with classic poise, charm, and wit. However, some of Graham’s weaker moments are less natural coming from Streep, especially her deadlocked silence amidst all-male boards and stock owners. Though her unfamiliarity in such a position manifests in curt dialogue, Streep’s majestic smile and stance naturalizes Graham’s leadership in female empowerment.
Graham’s actions make her a female role model throughout the film, in the eyes of Bradlee’s wife (Sarah Paulson), a staff worker in the courts, and amid the crowd of women that she steps into after the Supreme Court hearing between the press and the White House. She remains devoted to the Washington Post as a family business, and as one of the pioneering women of the publishing industry. Yet pressure builds as she plans to take the Post public in the American Stock Exchange, particularly with advisors and investors lacking confidence in her leadership as a woman. Graham’s reluctance and swaying inability to make large decisions for the Washington Post without consulting her strong-headed advisors vanishes when she gives the green light to publish the Pentagon Papers. Though her decision is an uncertain one, it profoundly impacts the press and its First Amendment rights.
As Graham’s accomplice, Hanks’ performance as Ben Bradlee echoes with spirit and feistiness. His gusto for freedom of the press and for promoting the Washington Post to something more than “the town paper” drives much of the plot in the film. As much as Bradlee calls out Graham for her close relationships to top officials in D.C., Hanks also reveals an internal struggle of Bradlee’s own past with the government. Even as Bradlee reminisces sadly on a framed photograph of him and his close friend John F. Kennedy—whom he refers to fondly as Jack—he later tells Graham that “those days have to be over.”
Despite Graham and Bradlee’s heroic decision, the film leaves little room to show any change in the characters after they publish the Pentagon Papers. The rest of the film disappointedly skips over what happened to their close-knit relationships as a result of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, especially Graham’s tension with close friend Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
The film’s strengths lie in its soundtrack and screenplay to bring back a different age of journalism. The loading of the newspaper stacks and cigarettes in the newsroom further accentuate the tensions Graham grapples with and the conflicts of interest inherent in publishing close sources. As the clanks of the machinery systematically press on for the next day’s paper, composer John Williams’ melodies draw out the impending uncertainty that the new headlines would produce. Williams’ score once again rings with sweet tones, and the music helps build suspense in the film, especially in scenes of monologue. Screenwriters Josh Singer (co-writer of “Spotlight”) and Liz Hannah succinctly weave together a witty script of a complex timeline of events. Though cleverly crafted, the tongue-in-cheek spirit of many conversations throughout the film fell short of laughs.
Despite its slightly awkward humor, the film resounds as much as its title. The out-of-touch jokes and this dramatized recall of history are just side-notes to this film’s clear, directive commentary on today’s relationship between the U.S. government and the media. With President Trump’s constant criticism of the media and the American Dialect Society’s naming of “fake news” as 2017’s word of the year, Spielberg brings together some of Hollywood’s top and classic talents as a recount and a reminder of the power of the press.
—Staff writer Lucy Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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