“I always wanted to be part of a small rebellion” – Ben Bagdikian (as played by Bob Odenkirk).
In 1971, The Washington Post released a series of articles based on leaked documents that revealed the shocking extent of the United State’s political and military interference in Vietnam over a period of two decades. It was a momentous event, one that redefined the relationship between media and government, and reaffirmed the importance of a free press in the face of severe legal implications.
Almost 50 years later, and the battle for the sanctity of quality journalism. Nixon may have proved an insidious opponent to the publication of truths that worked against him, but he was nothing compared to the unfiltered, shameless deceiver who now sits in the Oval Office, responding to the news in real time via social media.
The Post is nothing if not timely. Spielberg may have reconstructed 1970s America to the smallest detail but, thematically, little would have to be changed for a similar story set in the present day.
This is likely in no small part due to the presence of Meryl Streep, who plays with great reverence the role of Katharine Graham, the Post publisher who took over the company following her husband’s suicide. A socialite who finds herself with a historical decision placed squarely on her shoulders, Graham is vulnerable to the disrespect of the powerful men who surrounded her in her position, but is quick to defend the principles of her company, even in the face of the most ruthless Conservative in the country.
Graham’s position is not so unlike the position Streep found herself in last year, when she condemned President Trump in a 2017 Golden Globes speech. Streep said she did not want to be “the face of resistance”, yet her message was too important. Such was the case for Graham; she knew many of the people – including former Presidents – implicated in the Pentagon Papers. She considered many her friends. But that would not stop her speaking out in the end.
There’s a whole other film’s worth of story to explore there, but Spielberg has no time to explore it fully. The true bulk of the tale lies in the newsroom, where editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is leading his team in the search for and publication of the leaked documents. The director and his cast, including Carrie Coon, David Cross, Jesse Plemons and a superb Bob Odenkirk, capture the frenetic energy of seasoned professionals in the process of truly great work.
Understandably, though nevertheless disappointingly, Graham’s position as publisher means she is apart from all this. It’s her story, and by making the courageous decision to publish she is putting herself in as much risk as the whistleblowers and journalists in the trenches, yet it is ultimately the latter’s role that makes the ability to publish possible.
It’s why the film sometimes feels too timely. The Post’s message is unarguably important, but by making Graham the central figure, it can feel a little heavy-handed. Compare it to one of Spielberg’s greats from the previous decade: Munich.
Munich is a reflection of the post-9/11 world, but the message is seeded within a thrilling, shocking story that will appeal to a generation of viewers for whom 9/11 has no context outside of a history book.
Will The Post enjoy such longevity? I’m not convinced it will.
If it does, it will be predominantly due to the mastery of Spielberg himself. Like so many great craftspeople before him, Spielberg makes complex films seem simple to create. Credit too goes to the cast, as well as writers Liz Hannah and Spotlight scribe Josh Singer, who brought to life an exceptional group of characters.