Perhaps no other film this year captures two important political moments of our time: the issue of fake news and “me too”, the invisibility of women’s voices, until they were not. The Post is high-stakes filmmaking. Released this month, The Post is already receiving wide-ranging, intensely opposing reviews.
The Post opens with a scene of an American military analyst, Daniel Ellsberg shocked by the depths of continued deceit in hiding the loss of American lives in the Vietnam War, under four successive presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson). Ellsberg photocopies 7000 pages of top secret government reports commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. (See my December 15, 2011 review, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Paper” Now he is determined to shed light on the deceit by leaking the incriminating papers to The New York Times.
Only after the US Department of Justice secures an injunction against The New York Times, on the ground of threats to national security, do the Pentagon Papers become The Washington Post’s story and, therefore, Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee’s story.
Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep star as Ben Bradlee (editor-in-chief) and Katherine Graham (The Washington Post owner) in a flashpoint in our history: the courageous decision, in 1971, to publish the Pentagon Papers, which then contributes to the end of the Vietnam War as well as bringing down the presidency of Richard Nixon.
Katherine Graham, with no experience in the industry, has just assumed control of her family’s second-place local newspaper, The Washington Post,. The newspaper has neither significant power nor readership, and she is advised to take the company public since it is running at a financial loss. After her unfaithful husband has committed suicide, Katherine takes over the helm but she is fearful of losing her family’s newspaper legacy, having to lead in a man’s world where women do not manage corporations. Ben Bradlee gives her both respect and reminds her of the challenges of becoming a newspaper CEO.
Perhaps one of the most powerful and climactic moments in the film is when Katherine Graham, whose son has safely returned from Vietnam, realizes that US presidents’ lies have killed tens of thousands of young men over a period of two decades or more. Her turmoil anchors the film. Personal friends with Robert McNamara, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson, masterminds of the Vietnam War, Katherine Graham has multiple challenges to face and conflicting loyalties to balance in this high-stakes game: to publish or not to publish. Similarly, Ben Bradlee, who had been close to John F. Kennedy and proud of his association, is disillusioned as well.
The tensions keep rising. The Washington Post has just had an IPO. How will investors react? Will Graham and Bradley be prosecuted for revealing top secret documents? Will she lose the company she has inherited from her father and grandfather, hoping to bequeath The Washington Post to her children? How can she publish such damning material about her personal friends?
The Post bristles with intelligence. Every role is brilliantly cast: Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul” and “Breaking Bad”) and Sarah Paulson (“The Case of O.J. Simpson” and “American Horror Story”) have brief onscreen roles but commanding speeches.
While the memory of the 1970s is still momentous for many, the context of a president in the Oval Office detesting and trying to muzzle the media bears an unmistakable parallelism with political events today. Such a thing could never again happen in America, right?
Note: Companion films and series to watch along with The Post are The Most Dangerous Man in America, All the President’s Men , and the superb, unforgettable Ken Burns’ PBS Series, The Vietnam War. Look for my review of the Ken Burns’ tour-de-force in the near future.
Note: Viewers who believe that the newspaper beacons–The New York Times and The Washington Post–are outdated and irrelevant, will enjoy disliking this movie. For those born in the seventies and later, this may seem like irrelevant history but in reality it is a lesson to be learned. If you remember the breaking into a locked door of the Democratic National Committee, you will have to explain this ending scene to the millennials who will not know the significance.