The Post: a plea for freedom of speech and of the press, and for women’s progress in a film driven by dialogue and character study performances

Stephen Spielberg, “The Post” (2017)

A taut and minimalist political drama, “The Post” is driven by good dialogue and equally good if not outstanding character study performances by its three leading actors: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Bob Odenkirk. The film is set in the early 1970s and is based on the struggle by whistle-blower military analyst Daniel Ellsberg and the newspapers The New York Times and The Washington Post (hereafter referred to as NYT and WaPo respectively) to publish the famous Pentagon Papers – classified government documents depicting the extent of covert US government involvement in the Vietnam War which included elevating Ngo Dinh Diem to the South Vietnamese Presidency and later assassinating him in a coup, and bombing Cambodia and Laos, and demonstrating that the US had no hope of winning the war against a determined Vietnamese population fighting for its independence – and the extraordinary measures the Nixon administration took to suppress their publication. The film focuses more narrowly on the efforts of WaPo owner Katherine Graham (Streep), WaPo executive editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and journalist Ben Bagdikian (Odenkirk) to publish the documents in spite of serious threats made against them including Bradlee losing his job and Kay Graham losing face among her Washington social set.

Initially the film is a bit all over the place, dashing from a Vietnamese jungle scene in which American soldiers are shot at and open fire in return, and the incident recorded by a war correspondent on the ground, emphasising the importance of good journalism in conveying accurate news about events to the public at home so people can decide whether the US should continue fighting a war where no-one seems to be winning and too many are dying; to Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) taking the documents and secretly copying them with the help of friends; to Graham and Bradlee going about their daily routines in running the newspaper. The film seems to take some time to settle into a clear linear narrative structure (or maybe I’m the one who needs time to see that structure) but once the plot emerges, it proceeds briskly, powered by lots of conversation and passionate performances, and the zigzagging from one plot strand to another and back becomes less distracting and is more easily understood. Spielberg applies some very deft editing to the ends and beginnings of scenes to maintain pace and tension, and bring some humour to relieve some tension when things seem a bit too hairy. His style is very restrained, allowing the actors to inhabit their characters. Background shots are very significant in establishing the look and style of the film.

Perhaps the film focuses too much on Kay Graham as a feminist icon and moulds her into a stereotypical socialite who inherits her father’s company and has to learn the hard way – being thrown into the deep end of the proverbial swimming pool and having to swim – of how to be an effective CEO among swarms of men more or less hostile to women in positions of power. In real life, by 1971 Graham had been running the WaPo for seven or eight years, having hired Bradlee in 1965, and was already as tough as nails in dealing with a sexist business world (though perhaps inwardly she was still shit-scared at times). The film’s message that Kay Graham was a lone feminist pioneer in being the first woman to head a major newspaper – and moreover, one that became famous for its investigative reporting under her reign – is underlined in heavy-handed fashion in scenes involving Bradlee’s wife Toni (Sarah Paulson) who initially is nothing more than a housewife but is later revealed as a talented amateur painter, and one particularly tacky scene in which Graham walks past a throng of fawning women in a crowd. These scenes do little to advance the plot.

As is Streep’s custom, she nails Graham’s look, gestures and manner of speaking to perfection. Hanks and other actors probably act more themselves though Hanks’ moment to shine comes when he contemplates a photo and wonders (in silence) whether his past friendships with significant American political figures have compromised his journalistic ethics.

The film makes a plea urging viewers to support accurate investigative journalism and whistle-blowing activism as vital elements in maintaining democracy and speaking truth to power, and to support gender equality as one link in enabling talented, committed people of integrity to become journalists or newspaper publishers who can bring governments and politicians to account. The film’s release comes at a time when freedom of speech and the press is under assault from governments, intel agencies, corporations and think-tanks pushing agendas and ideologies in which they have vested interests, as never before; it also comes at a time when identity politics based on gender, ethnic, religious and life-style interests has trumped class-based politics and threatens to divide and weaken the public, driving it into squabbling factions that can be dominated by The Powers That (Should Not) Be, like never before. Criticism of the Nixon government can also be read as implied criticism of the current Trump government, and there is some concession that even the past Democrat administrations of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson (1961 – 1968) lied to the American people and continued to prosecute a war in which not only did hundreds of US soldiers die but US soldiers also committed war crimes. There is much good that can be said for “The Post” but also much bad that can be said too.