We get, it is often said, the art we deserve – that is, the art we need, the art that the times demand.
That certainly could be said of the new Steven Spielberg thriller, “The Post.” The story of a First Amendment showdown between a rising newspaper, The Washington Post, and the Nixon White House, “The Post” works on several different planes – politically, professionally and personally, as Edie Demas, executive director of the Jacob Burns Film Center, noted at the screening I attended. As such the movie speaks to an era in which “fake news” and #MeToo have become buzzwords.
The showdown between The Post and President Richard Nixon here is, of course, not the one everyone thinks of. Indeed, “The Post” leaves off where “All the President’s Men” (1976) begins, with Watergate. So “The Post” is not only a prequel to “All the President’s Men” but a complement. This time the men are led by one good woman.
She is Post publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), and when we first meet her, she has awakened suddenly in her bed, surrounded by loose-leaf binders, as she frets over presenting her board with the rationale for taking the Post and its company public. As Graham recounted in her absorbing Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, she grew up with The Post. Her father, Eugene Meyer, bought it when she was 16. Her mother, Agnes Ernst, was a journalist. And Graham herself worked as a reporter before she married Phil Graham.
But in those days, women – particularly upper-class women – rarely had careers. They certainly didn’t run companies. Instead, they married, had children, organized households, decorated houses, gave parties and did charity work. That’s a lot but it’s not necessarily a life of identity, individuality, creativity and self-expression, as anyone who’s read Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” might conclude. Meyer chose Phil, not Katharine, to succeed him as publisher. When the brilliant Phil, who suffered from bipolar disorder, committed suicide in 1963, his wife was left with their four children and a company that included The Post.
The movie takes place eight years later as The Post’s IPO coincides with the release in The New York Times of classified papers detailing the failure of America’s Vietnam entanglement and the federal government’s secret acknowledgement of that failure going all the way back to President Harry S Truman. It’s a failure that the administration of Richard M. Nixon wants to remain secret. To that end, his government moves to block further publication in the courts. With The Times temporarily sidelined, the ball ends up in The Post’s court as it uncovers its bigger rival’s source – former government analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys of “The Americans”). Post editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is gung-ho to publish what Ellsberg has surreptitiously copied, soon to be known as the “Pentagon Papers.” But Graham, a friend of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), is not so sure. She’s got the IPO and the financial backers to think of. At board meetings, she lets the all-male members voice what she herself knows. “The Post” is really about how she finds her voice.
That’s not to say that the First Amendment aspect – the importance of a free press in providing a check on government – doesn’t resonate, particularly at a time when journalists, often led by The Times and The Post, are doing great work in the face of President Donald J. Trump’s “fake news” claims. And I, a former newspaperwoman, certainly felt a certain nostalgia for the click of typewriter keys, the ca-ching of coins in the pay phone, the rumbling of the presses.
But the aspect of the story that resonates most is the personal one. Two scenes here come to mind. Celebrating the IPO on Wall Street, Graham climbs a flight of stairs lined with the Street’s secretaries, who part for her. A door opens for her to reveal a group of men – the ones who make things happen on the Street. And then it closes, leaving the secretaries shut out.
Did Graham see herself as a feminist? I don’t think the movie Graham does. In the second scene that haunts, she tells daughter Lally Weymouth (Alison Brie), now senior associate editor of The Post, that she doesn’t want to let anyone down – not in the family and not at the paper.
Why did Graham take up the fight to publish the Pentagon Papers? I think she knew it was the right thing to do. (In “Personal History,” she talks about her father’s publishing credo – Tell the truth.) But I also think she did it, because she loved The Post and felt that this was the kind of reporting it had to do in order to grow.
First, however, she had to trust her judgment. She had to recognize that you never let anyone down if first you stand up for yourself.