The news was the first rough draft of history, according to Katherine Graham’s (Meryl Streep) husband. In a way, that line sums up the subject of The Post; someone has to hold those in power accountable for their misdeeds. In this case, it’s successive administrations’ involvement in the Vietnam War, which was continued mostly to try and avoid a humiliating defeat.
The plot initially plays out as a seemingly familiar story of government vs. free press. In 1971, the New York Times gets hold of the McNamara report and publishes part of it, before being suppressed by Nixon under the Espionage Act. Where The Times is silenced, The Washington Post gets a chance to publish the documents. However, the film’s originality comes from the exchanges between its two leads. As the paper is going on the stock market to increase its declining readership, owner Graham and executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) also have to wrestle with the inevitable moral questions of deciding whether or not to publish. How can we hold anyone to account with no money and therefore no paper? Will we be putting lives at risk? What will people think if they know we had the documents but did nothing?
The fact that we know the outcome doesn’t diminish our enthusiasm, and we feel complicit with the characters throughout, following them through the bustle of the newsrooms with tracking and crane shots. If the promise of Streep and Hanks on screen together gets people into cinema seats, their performances hold them there. Hanks is convincing as the morally right journalist who just wants to do his job (“The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish”). But Streep has the more complex role as Graham, simultaneously trying to save her paper whilst doing the right thing. And she has to do it in a misogynistic, male-dominated environment, constantly reminded that the company belonged first to her father, then her husband. It’s satisfying to watch her finally assert control while Nixon, almost a distant shadow boxed in by the windows of the Oval Office, screams into the phone, followed by a tiny foreshadowing of Watergate in the film’s closing moments.
While the boardroom scenes and the battles fought with words may make the story seem slow for some viewers, Spielberg keeps us hooked with a well-scripted, well-acted and neat comment on the (past and modern) times. It’s a successful reminder that, when the press serves the governed, not the governors, the pen can be mightier than the sword.