Steven Spielberg’s latest gives The Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham her due with a polished drama.
I confess: prior to Steven Spielberg’s handsomely entertaining, feminist procedural The Post, I did not know a great deal about the country’s first female newspaper publisher Katharine Graham, who ran The Washington Post for more than two decades spanning the Watergate era. Being a Turkish immigrant and a fairly new American citizen are my lame excuses for my lack of information, even as someone who has seen Alan J. Pakula’s stunning political thriller All The President’s Men—about The Washington Post’s painstaking unveiling of the Watergate scandal—several times. Don’t blame me that Graham’s name didn’t quite stick to my mind through Pakula’s film, in which it just gets vulgarly cited to the Post reporter Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) by the angry Attorney General John Mitchell at the opposite end of a phone line: “You tell your publisher, tell Katie Graham, she’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published”. Graham was not really a presence in Pakula’s film beyond this name-check.
You can call Spielberg’s ’70s-set, gripping—if a touch paint-by-numbers—The Post an unofficial prequel to All The President’s Men; one that aims to set the record straight on that Katie Graham, who, a year prior to the breaking of the Watergate scandal, had decided to publish the leaked “Pentagon Papers” at great personal risk. “The Papers” (seizing my one opportunity to use the film’s previous, much better title), were the US government’s momentous, thousands-of-pages-long examination of the war in Vietnam that exposed how the White House had persistently lied about their overseas crusade that was unwinnable from the start, yet had continued to ship the country’s youth off to their ill fates. In the Trump era of “alternative facts” and “fake news”, the heroic story of Graham’s journalistic integrity at The Washington Post is undeniably nostalgic—you might actually feel an irrational envy towards the past, when news reporters put public interest above personal concerns and did their jobs in thriving, bustling newsrooms. But it is the film’s feminism that brings the story’s timeliness into sharper focus, through the lens of the present-day reckoning with systemic misogyny that is as old as history itself.
The Post is written by Liz Hannah (thank heavens for a female screenwriter) and Josh Singer, who scribed the more elegant newspaper drama Spotlight. Their script predictably flourishes in the hands of Spielberg, one of our finest filmmakers, who arguably knows more about the nostalgia of spirited American heroism than any major filmmaker working today. From E.T. to Saving Private Ryan and beyond, Spielberg’s career is defined by a wholesome sense of duty, with stories of selfless, fair-minded outliers pursuing justice on behalf of others. In that regard, no one could have been a better fit to bring Katie Graham onto the screen than the maker of Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, two recent Spielberg films that also concern mazelike governmental affairs and the dignified people who navigate them for the public’s benefit.
Graham is gloriously played by Meryl Streep, who might very well embrace her fourth Oscar (and thus tie the record with Katherine Hepburn) with one of the most excellent performances of her late career. She is simply tremendous at portraying Graham’s balancing act: playing, partly, a reluctant woman who constantly questions her worth and legitimacy in a workplace dominated by men, and, partly, a silent leader seeking an opportunity to rise to the occasion. Streep’s facial gestures and body language throughout The Post make for an acting master-class. In her power skirt suits and a show-stopping gold caftan (fabulously designed by Ann Roth), she carries herself with a fragile kind of confidence when she speedily walks behind a group of men, trying to keep up with them whilst politely insisting they listen. She subtly smiles under her breath after hearing a man say, with unwavering confidence, what she had been pondering with reluctance. She is aware that The Washington Post, which she took over after the passing of her husband, is perceived as a small, family newspaper that doesn’t measure up to the majors. She knows how to change that, but with every line and muscle on her face, she shows us just how apprehensive she’s been made to feel by the very men who technically report in to her.
“Is anyone tired of reading the news instead of reporting them?” asks Graham’s closest ally and Editor-in-Chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks, who slightly overplays Bradlee’s casual haughtiness) in one scene, after reading the first set of leaked papers at The New York Times. Luckily for The Post, The Times finds itself in a court battle with The White House soon after and gets banned from publishing any more of the top-secret documents (which were initially leaked by the defense department’s Daniel Ellsberg, played by Matthew Rhys). Thus, a hand-me-down news prospect proves to be The Post’s shot at leading the news-cycle once and for all, if Graham—over a terrific phone call scene that might very well become Streep’s Oscar clip—decides to publish it. When Bradlee relays the news of her decision to the staff with “she says, we publish,” I couldn’t help but notice, or maybe imagine, a satisfying emphasis on the word “she.”
Throughout The Post, close relationships between journalists and powerful political figures that can threaten free press are brought into question. We watch Graham face the repercussions of her close friendship with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the former Defense Secretary and architect of “The Papers”, who had been on duty during some of the worst years of the war. And we get a glimpse of Bradlee, staring with subtle unease at his cozy photo with the Kennedys. Plenty of newsroom porn—from phrases like “burying the lede”, to interns being sent off on impossible investigative missions, and the unforgiving pens of editors—are generously (perhaps a bit dutifully) hat-tipped in this tightly-woven ode to journalism. Forgive a dose of cliché here and there, and indulge your craving for good reporting that The Post knowingly juxtaposes against today’s grim state. In that sense, Spielberg’s latest is the antidote to 2017 we all need, with a fearless real-life woman finally getting her due from Hollywood, and leading the way towards changing the course of history.