The Power of the Press: “The Post” (2017)

 

Directed by Stephen Spielberg • Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer • Starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood

Plot Overview

The year is 1971. The Vietnam War is in full swing. Public support for the war is waning. Former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaks copies of The Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, who in turn publishes the report amid great controversy. The report details the involvement of the United States in Vietnam since the early 1950’s and paints a bleak picture of the possibility of a US victory. The Nixon administration responds with a heavy hand by deploying a court injunction stopping any further publication of the papers by the NYT. Washington Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) tracks Ellsberg down and obtains a copy of the report.

Editor of the Post-Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is elated when Bagdikian produces the papers, and sees it as an opportunity to bring The Washington Post to the forefront of American journalism. The other leaders of the paper, including the legal team, however, are less enthusiastic about the prospect of publishing classified government documents. Arguments ensue, and it all falls into the lap of the paper’s owner, Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep).

Graham recently grappled with the decision to take the company public and is well aware that the new financial platform is shaky. She is warned by board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) that a publishing controversy might scare investors away and plunge the paper into financial ruin. Graham must buck the patriarchal convention that has ruled her life for decades in favor of her own decision making in one of the biggest moments in the history of journalism.

 

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image via The Los Angeles Times

 

The Evolution of Woman

This film goes deep into the psyche of the American businesswoman of the 1970’s. It offers an honest look at what breaking the conventions of the time meant for a woman who was born and raised to be on the sidelines in the paternalistic society of the mid 20th century.

Katherine Graham inherited her newspaper from her late husband, who’d been gifted the business from her father. At the film’s opening, she brokers a deal to take the paper public and is persistently “guided” by her male counterparts. Meryl Steep conveys mild frustration at the board viewing her as a figurehead leader as opposed to a serious business owner. Katherine Graham is fighting an internal battle that has pitted her debutant self against the independent business owner she believes she can become.

A late night scene between Graham and her daughter exposes a hidden truth embedded in many mature feminists; playing the role of a subservient woman to her male companions felt completely natural back in the day. She explains that when her father passed the company to her husband rather than her, she didn’t bat an eye. She felt proud that her husband was a brilliant man who inspired confidence in her father. I think the obvious point is she didn’t consider this action to be a dismissal or an impertinence at the time; it was simply an accepted practice of the day.

Once Graham realizes and understands that she holds the power, she takes control. The most beautiful moment of this film is when Graham tells Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) to shove it while standing in her dining room in that gorgeous Grecian toga dress. Elegance and intelligence unite to show us the wonder that is Meryl Streep.

 

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image via The Lily

 

Directorial Frankness

The camera shots of the internal workings of the printing press visually stunned me. For the layman, the inner workings of the machines printing the newspapers of the world remain unknown. The malleable metal plates that are melted down to make way for new headlines, or the individual letters locked into place by expert typists to ensure the newest issue prints free of any typos or silly errors are the technical aspects not considered by the general public. On screen, these processes and procedures look like some sort of animated cannon bringing the free press to life in the most finite way possible.

I think it’s important how Spielberg chose to include shots of President Nixon in this film. We never see a Nixon from the front; every scene that includes him is shot from outside the oval office as if from across the lawn of the White House. His dialogue is mined exclusively from recorded telephone calls between him and elevated members of the government during his administration. Spielberg’s approach highlights the underhandedness of Nixon’s administration.

This film is a relatively simple exposition of what could have been the biggest blow to the free press since before the establishment of the United States government, the likes of which we needed to be reminded. Spielberg conveys it with pure simplicity of filmmaking using two of the most trusted actors in Hollywood. When you tell this kind of story, you don’t need people jumping out of airplanes or deep, passionate love scenes. You need two actors known for their integrity and a director who is willing to tell the truth.

 

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image via Variety

 

Espresso and Cake (Better known as Closing Comments)

“The Post” is straightforward storytelling at its best. Spielberg lets the subject matter speak for itself and doesn’t get in the way of his all-star cast. Streep and Hanks give strong performances that show the complexity of human nature surrounding hard to break conventions. The supporting actors, especially Bob Odenkirk and Bradley Whitford, are like gorgeous landscaping around a historic mansion that is Tom Hanks and Maryl Streep; they add immense value to the property, and their absence would certainly take away from its overall splendor.

Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

 

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Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on “The Post”? Leave a comment below!

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