Steven Spielberg’s political timing is nearly perfect, and so is his film.
The Post, directed by Steven Spielberg. On screens throughout New England.
By Peg Aloi
We’re awash in a miasma of digital information these days, and are becoming increasingly ambivalent regarding our media consumption. We want to dismiss our president’s raucous cries of “fake news” and yet we’ve all fallen prey to cleverly disguised propaganda beneath a red box with white letters that reads “Breaking.” In our increasingly internet-mediated culture, recognizing facts and trustworthy sources is now a sought after skill.
When the excellent film Spotlight won the year’s best film Oscar trophy, it seemed to be a victory for traditional media; the true story about newspaper reporters could be the stuff of a compelling thriller. Breaking the story of the sex scandal in the Catholic Church’s Boston archdiocese, the Boston Globe suddenly became, ironically, a subject of media adoration, especially given that its elite Spotlight team was played by the glamorous likes of Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Michael Keaton. Thus the ground was laid for another film, The Post, in which the press takes on an entrenched and powerful institution — an American government that was waging a war that was dividing the country.
Back in the ’60s, the civil rights movement was a major source of social upheaval, but it was Vietnam, a war that saw disproportionate numbers of young African-American men drafted while their white counterparts were more easily able to shelter themselves with student deferments or escape to Europe or Canada, that finally begat a revolution on the streets, as citizens demanded an end to the wholesale slaughter of its youth for purposes that had never been clearly revealed. When film footage of the war, disseminated on the nightly news via millions of televisions, showed the public the murder of Vietnamese civilians, outrage turned to horror, and the political/cultural pressure was on. The authenticity of these firsthand accounts simply couldn’t be questioned. If not for news reporting, national dissent would never have reached the huge proportions it did.
Even if you weren’t around for the Vietnam War, didn’t witness the protests that led to the removal of our troops and the Fall of Saigon in 1975, or watch as the Nixon presidency ended in 1976 in impeachment and resignation with the threat of impeachment (prompted by the 1972 Watergate incident), you’re still very likely to appreciate The Post. Steven Spielberg’s incisive film takes place in 1971, a year before Nixon’s second term began. If you’ve seen All the President’s Men (1976), you know the Nixon-Washington Post confrontation (eerily similar to today’s Trump-newspaper collision, aside from the fact that Nixon read the newspapers he railed against). Unlike that film, The Post isn’t about unraveling mystery — more about unspooling a crisis. It’s part political thriller, part stylish historical drama. Historical because, despite it’s being only forty-six years ago, this movie captures the era and its vibe from a vantage point absent from early 1970s stories. The Post examines the grown ups who aren’t marching in the streets for peace or fighting in an unwinnable war overseas. Here we see the adults who masterminded the war and galvanized the protests.
The film opens with a pair of prelude scenes (one set on a front line in Vietnam, circa 1966, the other giving us a man in an office after dark, stealing documents with “TOP SECRET” printed on every page). The story proper begins at the offices of the Washington Post in 1971. Editor Bill Bradlee (the likeable Tom Hanks, mitigating Bradlee’s gruffness with his trademark warmth) is bemoaning the banning of one of his White House reporters from the wedding of Tricia Nixon for a minor faux pas, giving a taste of what would famously become Nixon’s all-out war on the press, evidence of which were captured on tapes of Nixon’s private phone calls (before the era of Twitter, ah, good times). But there’s bigger fish to fry: the New York Times is sniffing around a story about leaked government documents pertaining to the war, and Bradlee sends a scout to the city to get some information.
At the same time, the paper’s publisher, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep in a subtle, powerful performance) is meeting with her board members. (Her father had owned the paper and at his death left its management to his son-in-law, who later committed suicide.) The men include Chairman Fritz Beebe, played by Tracy Letts, and a composite character played by Bradley Whitford. The pair are a small part of a marvelous ensemble cast that includes actors seen recently in such sociopolitically-charged shows and films as The Americans, Spotlight, Get Out, In the Loop, and American Horror Story: Cult, among others. They’re discussing taking the paper public, a big move for a regional paper but, of course, we all know the paper is soon going to a major player in the media landscape. Graham is soft-spoken and deferential to the men who run the paper’s day-to-day operations; her quiet gravitas suggests that she does not resent the occasional mansplaining and condescension prevalent in the board meetings. Consciousness raising had not yet made its way to Graham’s high class social circle; at the fancy dinner parties she throws, women dutifully leave the dining room after dinner so the men can hobnob over cigars and whiskey. Graham’s carefully coiffed hair and somewhat drab dresses, reflected in similar attire worn by her female friends, telegraph the conservative look expected of women of her generation at the time; there is nary a pantsuit in sight.
The NYTimes publishes a story informed by the Pentagon Papers. Bradlee is frustrated by their scoop. After the Department of Justice places a temporary injunction on the Times, the editor wonders if there is a way for the Post to dig further into the story. Coincidently, a young hippie chick, with long flowing hair, wearing love beads and a brightly colored skirt, brings a box to the desk of a shy young reporter named Jake, asking “Are you important?” She leaves it before he can answer. Jake (played by Michael Cyril Creighton, who also has a small but pivotal role in Spotlight) brings the box to his editors, softly murmuring a description of the young woman, eventually remembering the words “tie-dye.” Her dress and flowing hair immediately identity the young woman; she is without a doubt a member of the resistance, the revolution, the anti-war movement. Entrusted with delivering stolen evidence to the Fourth Estate, she, a woman, places herself on the front lines. It’s a casual delivery, but it feels like espionage, and indeed, it is. This action also telegraphs what we know will be a similar act of bravery on the part of Graham.
The box (a Thom McCann shoebox, no less! One of the film’s many great period details, including the ubiquitous smoking and mimeograph machines) contains an unorganized pile of papers that are obviously the same documents used by the Times, which led to their censure. Bradlee sends National Editor Ben Bagdikian to procure the entire trove of documents from his old friend, military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys from The Americans), the man we saw swiping documents in the opening scene. Bagdikian carefully packs the papers into cartons and buys them their own seat on a plane.
Despite not yet knowing if the paper will be able to publish these findings, reporters work round the clock at Bradlee’s house, served sandwiches by his wife Tony (played by the wonderful Sarah Paulson in a small but key role). It’s a great segment, the men finishing each others’ sentences and working elbow to elbow, a subtle homage to the teamwork of Redford and Hoffman in All the President’s Men. It goes down to the wire. There’s a thrilling scene where the story is typeset for the front page with close-ups of metal letters being arranged and coated with ink — BY HAND! The final decision to publish is ultimately left to Graham. In the middle of a fancy gala at her home, she is called away to an important phone call by her maid (another nod to the nearly invisible but pivotal role of women in this story). In a delicious moment of subtle dominance she directs the board members present to listen in another room while she discusses the situation with Bradlee privately in her office. Both the publisher and her editor, in addition to being under danger of indictment if the story is printed, also have significant personal relationships at stake: there’s Bradlee’s friendship with JFK, and Graham’s with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (played by Bruce Greenwood). She has confronted him earlier in the film, telling McNamara she is personally hurt by his refusal to reveal information that might have prevented putting so many young men, her own son included, in the path of danger.
If you’ll forgive me another discussion of the significance of the costumes, it should be noted that, in the film’s pivotal scene, Streep is wearing a silk caftan made of shimmering gold thread. It was a not uncommon mode of dress for a DC socialite at the time, when “ethnic clothing” first adopted by youthful rebels was becoming more mainstream. At this moment, we sense Graham’s kinship with the young hippie in tie-dye. They are both political warriors, one slipping through the streets carrying contraband, the other presiding over a celebratory dinner. Graham’s privilege is evident in the gold cloth, her diffidence expressed in the gown’s gossamer weightlessness. Her resolve outweighs her trepidation. The sexist trappings of her existence (the dinner parties, the beauty parlor) will not obstruct her decision. She speaks her piece and announces she is going to bed. The morning edition is hours away from hitting the streets.
The paper goes to press, with amazing close-ups of the machinery, clattering metal behemoths through which huge rolls of printed paper are cut, folded, wrapped, and tossed skillfully onto waiting trucks by shouting men who have performed this late night task hundreds of times. It is a loud, painstaking, and mechanically-magical process. It is a nail-biting yet triumphant day for the Post. Lest you think I am laying it on a bit thick with the feminist symbolism, consider the scene where women line up to catch a glimpse of Graham, who is walking tall in the face of potential calamity. It is a cheeky nod to the recent waves of solidarity radiating throughout media culture, as women speak up and stand united against years of institutionalized oppression. And that solidarity is echoed in the march of regional newspapers who, taking their cue from the Post, also decide to go public with the Pentagon Papers’ damning revelations. Someone has to speak up first. Others will follow. Spielberg’s timing is nearly perfect, and so is his film.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Cinemazine, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.