The essence of the current cultural discourse is that everything we watch is at least latently political. And we, the people, are hungry for political art. This recurring column, The Politics of American Movies, will explore everything from racially progressive Westerns and anti-fascist comedies to documentaries about the working class and popcorn flicks with subversive bite.
Early in The Post, Steven Spielberg’s new movie, the researcher Daniel Ellsberg is flying back to the United States from Hau Nghia Province in Vietnam when he gets a summons: “The secretary would like a word.” The secretary of state, that is: Robert McNamara. The year is 1966. McNamara has been discussing the Vietnam War with an official who has President Richard Nixon’s ear, and whose sense is that the U.S. has made good progress in Vietnam over the past year. “But I’ve been doing my own review,” McNamara says, “and it seems to me things have gotten worse.” That’s the question McNamara wants Ellsberg to answer: Have things gotten better in Vietnam, or are they indeed worse? The answer, of course, is not better.
Ellsberg knows firsthand. For the past two years, he’s been gathering knowledge in Vietnam that will prove useful to the compilation of a 7,000-page study, commissioned by Secretary McNamara himself, that will come to be known as the Pentagon Papers. The papers detail, among other things, the U.S. government’s unwillingness to publicly cop to the Vietnam War’s failure. In June 1971, after failed attempts to stoke the interest of a few U.S. Senators, Ellsberg leaks the multivolume study to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan. Sheehan’s writing on the documents, combined with excerpts printed in the newspaper, moves the Nixon administration to issue an injunction forbidding the Times from publishing anything else on the subject. It will go all the way to the Supreme Court—and Nixon will lose.
That’s not quite the story Spielberg sets out to tell in The Post, as suggested by the fact that his movie isn’t titled The Times. Spielberg’s movie is largely about what happens in the wake of that court injunction: The Times couldn’t publish, and the same top-secret documents that’d gotten the paper into trouble landed in the hands of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and his hungry staff. This story is wedded to the efforts of The Washington Post’s publisher, Katherine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), to rise into her own amid backward gender politics and a forthcoming IPO that makes getting anywhere near the Pentagon Papers seem like too much of a risk. It’s a movie about a lot of things at once: women in the workplace; the First Amendment; the birth of The Washington Post as a paper of national, and not merely local, importance; and government secrets.
But that’s just the logline. This is obviously a movie that’ll mostly go down as the first time Streep and Hanks have starred in a film together and, just as miraculously, the first time Streep has worked with Spielberg. It will also strike many in the audience as eerily relevant, what with its emphasis on a notoriously antagonistic president, women battling the belittling efforts of men in the workplace, public distrust for the government, and the increased urgency of a robust press. The entire movie was produced in 2017—or couldn’t you tell? Even its cast feels ripped from recent TV Guide listings: legends playing legends. In addition to Streep and Hanks, there’s Matthew Rhys as Ellsberg, Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, Bruce Greenwood as Bob McNamara, Carrie Coon as Pulitzer-winning editorialist Meg Greenfield; and beyond that, Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, David Cross, Jesse Plemons, Zach Woods, and others. The cast is stacked with familiar faces who are dulled down in the journalist-budget office wear befitting the era. It’s quite something.
Whatever the ins and outs of its plot, The Post is ultimately in line with other movies of heroic journalism, among them Spotlight and All the President’s Men. It’s about the push and pull of public institutions, specifically the press and the government, just as Spotlight pitted the press against the church and the legal frameworks that’d been developed to protect it. Graham and Bradlee are people who once brushed shoulders with the likes of Lyndon B. Johnson and JFK, and who, in Graham’s case, currently maintain friendships with McNamara and his peers. Now they’re embroiled in a moment of crisis that’ll clarify why the press must emphatically remain, contra the government, the press.
The Post is another of Spielberg’s civics lessons. À la Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, the film tilts toward taking an ironic stance on power run rampant (spoiler alert: neither the worrywart capitalists on WaPo’s board nor the Nixon administration come off as the heroes) while ultimately standing in awe of what can happen when power falls into (according to history) the right hands. This is a nerdy, civil, heartening pro-journalism movie. Come for the click-clacking idealism of newsroom typewriters busily changing the world; stay for the moment Meryl Streep goofily says, “I buried the lede.”
When we first see Kay Graham, she’s stirring awake in a bed overwhelmed with binders from work. It’s reminiscent of Robert Redford in All the President’s Men, with his messy bedroom full of files, documents, and boxes of notes. Graham is preparing to take The Washington Post public, and she’s been studying up for a meeting with the paper’s board of directors. It’s a fraught position. The Washington Post of this era is still a family paper. Kay is the daughter of Eugene Meyer, who bought the paper at an auction in 1933 and, leaving to become the president of the World Bank, passed it down to his son-in-law, Philip Graham—not his daughter. The paper only falls to Kay after her husband’s death at his own hands in 1963, seven years before most of the action in The Post, though one’s impression from the movie is that Kay has gained little of the board of directors’ respect in that time.
There’s a lot on the line for Kay, both personally and professionally, when Ben Bradlee’s insistence on securing the Pentagon Papers threatens a successful IPO, given its risk-averse terms. This is not just about the health of the paper, or keeping it a family business. This is a time when, at the end of a dinner party, the women—including Kay!—promptly leave the room once the men start talking about politics. There’s a perverse sense in the office, meanwhile, that despite being the blood heir to the paper, Kay only has control because of her husband. Executives on her board talk about her and her decision-making like she’s not even there.
It’s a funny role for Streep when you think about it; she’s easily one of the most heralded actors in the history of American movies, and not exactly a persona known for being easily blown aside—remember, she won an Oscar for playing Margaret Thatcher. But the Kay she gives us is by turns humorously and dishearteningly disinclined from taking the reins. She leans, continually, on the advice of her advisor, Fritz Beebe (a great Tracy Letts), who speaks up for her in a board meeting when she can’t, and whose eventual advice (which she almost takes) is to just forego this Pentagon Papers thing. Despite all its historical baggage, the movie could be boiled down to Kay’s arc, the power of the press merging with her power and authority as an executive. By the time Kay rises into that sense of authority, the casting of Streep—who can’t not own a room or a frame, even when it’s crowded with men—becomes eminently clear.
We can’t forget Tom Hanks, however, nor the incredible man he plays, editor Ben Bradlee, with whom Graham is paired in the movie from the very start. He tries to convince Kay, as an executive with powerful press machinery behind her, to do the right thing: run stories about the Pentagon Papers when the Times no longer can. It’s partially a power grab: This is a chance for WaPo to become more than a local paper in a market crowded with local papers. Mostly, though, we’re here to study the principle of the matter. McNamara—a friend of Graham’s—knew that America wouldn’t win in Vietnam as early as 1965. The government had been lying for years, and as a consequence of that lie, thousands of men had been sent into a losing war—including, as it happens, Graham’s own son. “We can’t have an administration dictating to us our coverage just because they don’t like what we print about them,” says Bradlee. There’s a decisive moment of triumph in the movie when Graham finally agrees.
The Post is structured as a series of arguments over journalistic principles on the one hand, and on the other, the paranoid duties of the press: gathering and keeping secrets, laboring away in dark rooms and hunched over typewriters, meeting up with sources in motels, conducting exchanges of information over pay phones. It’s about connections, above all: between journalists and their sources, executives and their politician friends, and on and on. Spielberg homes in on the sense of paranoia in some moments; in others, he leans into the constant exchanges of power. He’s reliably good at staging every argument, every moment of heavy decision-making, as a neat manifestation of how the characters feel, tilting the camera this way or that, or winding it in circles over Kay’s head, as each argument reaches a crisis point.
It’s your basic Spielberg master class, essentially, which is good enough reason to adore it, even despite the obvious corniness of its most democratically idealistic points. The Post made me crave a movie that sees the press not only as a powerful institution worthy of our admiration, but as simply an institution of power. Maybe this is a craving borne of too many “neighborhood Nazi” profiles, too many damning mishandlings of injustice (such as Michael Brown being called “no angel” by The New York Times the day he was buried). As in Spotlight, the press in The Post imposes itself as a check on the power of other institutions. But it still seems worthwhile to wonder—particularly in a current moment as fraught as our own, and particularly in the case of a movie which tells a story about the past but eagerly insinuates itself into the present—why there aren’t more films about the power of the press as an outright power. Those are the questions The Post is smart enough to raise, but unlike the cynically perceptive journalists he admires, Spielberg isn’t eager to hunt down the answers.