If one looks back at US history during the 1970s, the importance of The Washington Post immediately becomes clear. The paper, which began the decade as just another local daily with little national prominence, concluded it as an important bastion of investigative journalism. Watergate and The Washington Post are inextricably linked through Woodward, Bernstein and Deep Throat. Although The Washington Post didn’t bring down Nixon, its contributions didn’t help the embattled president remain in office. The Post, however, isn’t about Watergate; it’s about events that preceded the 1972 break-in and how, by defying the Nixon administration in publishing excerpts from The Pentagon Papers, The Washington Post became a major player.
Although the events of Steven Spielberg’s movie transpired 46 years ago, they find surprising relevance in today’s political climate. Most presidents have had adversarial relationships with the press and more than one bemoaned the latitude resulting from the First Amendment but, until Nixon, none tried to throttle the free press. Now, less than a half-century later, we face similar growing concerns. The Post provides us with a history lesson in the hope that, by remembering what happened in 1971 and how important it was to the integrity of the government, we won’t again slide down the slippery slope.
Spielberg is a great storyteller and, in relating the tale of how The Washington Post landed on the front lines of The Pentagon Papers battle (alongside The New York Times), he has his work cut out for him. This is not inherently cinematic material – it’s the kind of narrative that demands a wide canvas. In an example of his mastery over the medium of film, Spielberg is able to (a) provide sufficient background for the uneducated viewer to understand the basics of the situation, (b) avoid oversaturating the film with exposition, (c) developing two compelling characters, and (d) keep the pace from flagging.
The movie attacks the story from two angles that eventually converge in a scene pregnant with tension and future implications. Never has a conference call been so suspenseful! Prior to that pivotal moment, however, we follow the actions of The Washington Post’s timid owner, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), to steer the paper along a conservative course as it prepares for an IPO that will provide a needed infusion of cash. Meanwhile, news editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), after doggedly tracking the so-called “Pentagon Papers” (a Department of Defense history of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam from the Truman through Eisenhower administrations), comes into possession of the entire 4,000-page document and has an opportunity to uncover one of many damning stories and take it to print. His aggressiveness throws The Washington Post into a legal quagmire that pits the paper against the Nixon administration in court and threatens jail time for many of the key players. Kay is faced with a choice: allow Ben to go forward or put the brakes on things, let a suit involving The New York Times play out, and avoid alienating skittish investors. Then comes the phone call…
The central conflict is easily delineated. On the one side – the cautious, conservative one – are those who believe that rash action could irreparably damage The Washington Post by causing its investors to balk and sending it into bankruptcy. They are enemies not of journalism but of controversy. They don’t want to cross Nixon nor do they want to risk jail. On the other side are the aggressive journalists who see Nixon’s actions as fundamentally anti-American. They believe that the content of The Pentagon Papers should be available to all and that releasing the information isn’t precluded by the Espionage Act. They are willing to defy the administration and the courts and go to jail if necessary to protect the freedom of the press. All of the film’s dramatic tension arises from the clash between these sides, each of which is represented by factions within the newspaper. But with which position does Kay align herself? And, once she has declared her allegiance, do new revelations raise the stakes and make a change of position possible?
Spielberg is meticulous in his recreation of a 1970s-style newsroom and in his revival of how papers were set up and printed before there were computers. Also, although Nixon is mostly off-screen, he makes two appearances. On those occasions, Spielberg opted not to employ a voice actor. Instead, we see the silhouette of a stand-in as excerpts from the president’s tapes are played. So, in the name of authenticity, Nixon plays Nixon and his voice speaks from beyond the grave. The Post’s historical accuracy is as strong as its attention to detail.
The Post marks Spielberg’s fifth collaboration with Tom Hanks but this is his first time working with Meryl Streep. As one would expect with Streep and Hanks at the top of the bill, the acting is top-notch. Both are skilled performers and, while it’s hard to argue that either gives a portrayal of Oscar-worthy exceptionalism, they are credible and convincing. Hanks’ Ben is the same force of nature at the end that he is at the beginning. Streep’s Kay has an arc as she evolves from timid an uncertain to confident in her power and position. The movie’s commentary on Kay’s importance as a woman in this position of power isn’t subtle – consider the scene when she wades into the crowd on the courthouse steps and finds herself surrounded by female well-wishers.
The Post is reminiscent of Spotlight, which captured the 2016 Oscar. Both films extol the importance of investigative journalism. Spotlight is a little more about the nuts-and-bolts of putting together a story whereas The Post has a wider scope. In the end, however, both movies are about how important stories generate powerful push-backs and that’s when the First Amendment is at its most important. Although prone to occasional sermonising, The Post offers a stirring reminder of the importance of these kinds of unsung heroes in protecting the American way of life.
This piece was first published on Reelviews and has been republished here with permission.
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