In this era of so called fake news, there is a contemporary resonance to Steven Spielberg’s latest film about The Washington Post and its battle to publish the Pentagon Papers – classified files which exposed the reluctance by several, successive US government administrations to reveal the true state of the Vietnam war. Although The Post is set in 1971, its story of the power of truth and the importance of press freedom versus issues of national security feels very pertinent.
Based on actual events, this engaging, powerful drama stars Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, the first female owner and publisher of the Post and Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, the paper’s editor. When the government injuncts The New York Times from publishing the leaked Papers, the Washington Post seizes the opportunity to publish the material instead. “The way they lied, those days have to be over,” says Bradlee. But the stakes are high: Bradlee and Graham make the historic decision in the face of legal threats and against the wishes of the paper’s executives, risking the possibility of closure and prison.
Both Streep and Hanks give strong, credible performances, supported by a cast that includes Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk and Matthew Rhys. The film is steeped in period detail - a time of clattering typewriters, linotype printing presses and payphones. Within the smoke fuelled newsroom, the only female journalist is the features editor, encouraged in her efforts to improve the Post’s style pages.
As well as reflecting the close partnership between Graham and the authoritative, gruff Bradlee, the film examines Graham’s rise from reluctant heir to that of leader. Graham is a well connected, society woman, who inherited the ownership of the paper after her husband’s death - a role she was not prepared nor equipped for. Streep’s Graham is nervous, inexperienced, lacking in confidence and driven by self-doubt. The male dominated boardroom is a particularly unforgiving environment. Sexism is overt and the directors are concerned about having a woman in charge, with many of the opinion that she lacks the “resolve” to make tough choices.
She defies the doubters, showing considerable determination and integrity and becomes the first woman to run a Fortune 500 company.
But at the end, there is a moment that verges on the cheesy. As Graham stands outside the Supreme Court, the camera pans slowly across to rows of women who have filed in support. It jars somewhat in what is otherwise a confident and rousing film.
The Post is released on January 19.