If you were a kid in the 1960s or ‘70s, perhaps even as late as the ‘90s, and your parents took a newspaper, you probably saw that paper as a grown-up thing. This was where adults went to get important and trustworthy information about the world. Therefore, newspapers would always be there—for them to die was unimaginable.
The unimaginable has nearly happened, and we’ve all heard the reason: The old model of advertising is unsustainable in the age of the Internet, or some variation thereof. But none of that explains away the need for what reporters do. The Post, Steven Spielberg’s account of the Washington Post’s risky decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, is set in 1971, yet it’s an example of old-school filmmaking that’s modern at its core. It’s a reflection of all we stand to lose if news reporting and the outlets that support it should vanish, especially in the face of a President who strives daily to crush it. It’s the story of a woman, Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham—played here in a striking performance by Meryl Streep—who had to fight for respect at a paper she actually owned. And even if its goals are lofty, the movie is so fleet and entertaining that you never feel you’re being lectured to. This is a superhero movie for real grownups.
When Daniel Ellsberg, at the time a Defense Department analyst, leaked classified information pertaining to the Vietnam War to the New York Times, the Nixon White House was so enraged that it sought, and secured, a temporary court order barring the Times from publishing further excerpts from the documents. The Post, written by first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (Spotlight), details the role of the Washington Post as that story began to expand and explode—which happened to coincide with the paper’s stressful preparations for an IPO, endangering the institution’s very survival.
At the center of this swirl were Katharine Graham, who had been managing the company since her husband, Philip Graham, had committed suicide eight years earlier, and Post editor Ben Bradlee (here played by a marvelous, growly Tom Hanks), whom Graham had hired in 1968, a longtime newsman who either fit the profile of the cantankerous, visionary newspaper editor or helped shape it, depending on your perspective. In an early scene, when the two meet for one of their customary breakfast meetings, the air around the table vibrates with their affable contentiousness. “Katharine, keep your finger out of my eye,” Bradlee blurts out when he thinks Graham has pushed an editorial suggestion too hard. She backs down with a girlishly innocent glance that indicates she hasn’t backed down at all. This is a woman who has worked hard at finding ways to get men to listen to her. She understands the value of a cagy, temporary retreat.
The high drama of The Post begins with Bradlee’s fuming resentment of the New York Times after it drops Ellsberg’s bombshell, though at that time, of course, no one knew that Ellsberg (played here, with muted, matter-of-fact intensity, by Matthew Rhys) was the source of the leak. “Anyone else tired of reading the news instead of reporting it?” Bradlee says, addressing no one in particular in his newsroom, but knowing full well that every one in it already feels that mix of shame, envy, and ambition common to all newspeople. The one who seems least flashy of all, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk, in a superb performance that’s as offhandedly rumpled as the nondescript shirts he wears) will be the one to reel in the Post’s big scoop, by obtaining the Pentagon Papers themselves from Ellsberg. Some of the movie’s most dramatic, and funniest, moments take place at an outdoor bank of payphones, where Bagdikian juggles loose change, dangling receivers and semi-memorized phone numbers as he works that quotidian magic known as great journalism.
Spielberg and ace cinematographer Janusz Kaminski get the visual details of the era just right: A faint scrim of cigarette smoke hangs around a group of journalists as they pull off a Herculean eight-hour feat. Graham’s outfits, by veteran costume designer Ann Roth, evoke a sense of prim clout—her ladylike suits both command respect and render her almost transparent, as if they were the components of a subconscious stealth mission. In the early 1970s, this was how a woman dressed when she needed to get things done.
In The Post, everything Graham does is in response to a man, or, more specifically, to something a man is trying to make her do. In real life, Graham was a rich girl, the daughter of the Post’s owner, Eugene Meyer. When Meyer died, he left the paper to his son-in-law, Philip Graham, rather than to his daughter. That move wasn’t, and wasn’t considered, a slap in the face to his own offspring. It was simply the way things were done.
In The Post, we see Graham’s vulnerability, the way she needs to be coached by her friend and adviser Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), the Post’s chairman, in preparation for the company’s IPO, and the way her composure crumbles when she’s called upon to explain the paper’s mission and strategy in an important meeting—a roomful of men, naturally. We see how her close friend Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) tries to subtly manipulate her as she wrestles with the decision to publish the Papers—the revelations they contain will permanently tarnish him. And although Nixon appears in the movie only as a shadowy profile, he too seeks to intimidate Graham. This was business as usual. At every turn, there was a man ready to undermine her authority.
Streep is revered for her great-lady acting, but she’s always freshest, and most alive, in comedy. Her performance here is terrific because it’s a whirlwind eddy of both. You never know when she’s going to make an authoritative declaration or crack a sly, witty joke. When Graham takes a crucial phone call—while wearing a milky-white eveningwear caftan, having just been called away from the party she’s hosting—there’s a moment of hesitancy, as if she isn’t completely sure she’s about to do the right thing. In deciding to publish the Pentagon Papers, Graham put her paper at risk and defied a bullying president. She also exposed the ways in which the United States government, through the course of several administrations, had lied to its own people.
When Streep’s Graham renders her decision during that phone call, her voice is somehow feathery and flinty at once, but there’s no mistaking its conviction. It’s as if, in that moment, Graham was at first only seeing a future, until she realized she could instead shape one. The Post is the story of a legacy, but it’s also a rallying cry. Graham couldn’t, not even in her superhero caftan, ensure the survival of all newspapers, but she knew what journalism meant to democracy. In print or in pixels, today it still means the same.