During my time at UCLA, I learned that sometimes with some professors I needed a good guy friend in order to have my opinions heard. When a guy says something, is somehow sounds better, clearer and more rational than when it comes from the mouth of a woman. I wasn’t the only female graduate student who fell back on this ploy. Spielberg’s latest movie is about a woman who is used to having men speak for her and at her but not to her. “The Post” is not only the story of how the Washington Post which had been a local newspaper rose to national prominence, but how a woman from a prominent family found her voice and got people, men, in particular, to listen.
“The Post” is a must-see for all journalists, critics of journalism and all women (and the men who love and support them). Director/producer Steven Spielberg has cast two of America’s most respected and beloved actors in the lead roles and neither Streep nor Hanks lets him or journalists down. The whole ensemble cast is without fault.
By the time we meet Katherine “Kay” Meyer Graham (Meryl Streep), she has already proved a survivor, but also a woman not yet awakened to her own worth. Although she would go on to be the publisher of The Washington Post for two decades, she had not felt slighted when her father has passed her over and given her husband Philip Graham the position of publisher in 1946. By that time, Katherine had world at the Post, beginning in 1938, but after her marriage in 1940, she was raising a daughter and three sons, the last being born in 1952.
In her 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, “Personal History,” she wrote, “Far from troubling me that my father thought of my husband and not me, it pleased me. In fact, it never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper.” Katharine was the fourth of five children that Eugene Meyer and Agnes Meyer produced–four of whom were girls. The only son, Eugene “Bill” Meyer III became a doctor.
Philip Graham was not an ideal husband. Katherine had discovered him having an affair with journalist Robin Webb in 1962 and they were on the verge of divorce because Philip wanted to marry Robin. But by August 1963, Philip was dead, committing suicide in the Grahams’ Glen Welby home. Katherine became publisher of The Post. She formally had the title of publisher from 1969 to 1979.
Katherine was publisher when The Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal, but this was still in the offing. The New York Times began publishing excerpts of The Pentagon Papers on 13 June 1971. After the publication of three articles by New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan. Sheehan wasn’t a stranger to the Vietnam War, he had served in the US Army from 1959 to 1962 and been the UPI bureau chief in Saigon for two years. He began reporting on the White House in 1966.
The movie begins with US military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) in Vietnam and later, at the RAND Corporation, where he makes a momentous decision in 1969 to take the top-secret Pentagon studies that will become known as The Pentagon Papers and with the help of a former colleague, Anthony Russo, and make several photocopies. One of the copies was given to Sheehan.
Kay is preparing to take the family newspaper public, a move that will allow for the hiring of more high quality reporters, but the share price could plunge in the wake of a scandal.
Kay has hired the canny Ben Bradlee, he’s a man who can smell the scent of a hot news story by tracking what other prominent writers at other publications, such as the vaunted New York Times, are doing or not doing. Sheehan has not published for three months. While he’s dealing with the fallout of the future Miss Manners, Judith Martin (Jessie Mueller) being banned from the White House, but still keeps her assigned to the Tricia Nixon wedding, he’s waiting for the bomb to explode. Yet the fight isn’t over when the Times publishes the articles.
Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) scrambles to hunt Ellsberg down through old connections until after using pay phones, there’s the pay off and he’s off to meet with Ellsberg and bring back the boxed papers on their own airplane seat.
Being a journalist is all about connections and the Graham-Meyer family has more than a few. Graham is good friends with the man who commissioned the study, Robert McNamara. But Bradlee was also friends with JFK. Moving amongst the political power brokers and presidents, Bradlee and Graham both made decisions about how to use their connections and for some, like Bradlee, learn how they have also be used.
“The Post” is about journalism and how The Post took up the flame of freedom of the press while others hesitated after the Nixon White House injunction against the Times was made, but it is also about how Kay transformed her manner of speech and her concept of who she was, the only woman publisher of a major newspaper, and one who could make vital, risky decision and demand respect.
That is a lesson for men and women, in and out of the newsrooms. One to be followed by “All the President’s Men.” Together with “The Post,” these movies explain how The Post rose to prominence under Kay Graham, who became the object of one of journalism’s most famous quotes (Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell told Carl Bernstein, “”Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published” but Bradlee cut out “her tit” when the quote was published), but survived to earn her own Pulitzer.
Streep plays her as a nice-girl not quite grown up enough to play hard ball with the big boys and Hanks’ Bradlee is definitely one of the big boys who plays hard. Yet both as Streep transforms into a hesitantly confidant leader, Hanks’ Bradlee is one who suffers disappointment over JFK. Together they spar, not always in agreement, under different pressures but with the same goal: To make The Post a great national paper and to shine a light on the truth.
In Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s script, we never really see Mitchell or Nixon. Yet director Steven Spielberg doesn’t allow us to forget their presence, nor the presence of everyday sexism, even in the newsroom, boardrooms and in the lovely homes of the social elite.
Out of all of those thousands of pages, Hannah and Singer pick out the tragic number, one that numbingly tells the tragedy of lost lives in Vietnam. I heard that number earlier this year in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary mini series “The Vietnam War.” That documentary is a good lead in to “The Post” and will allow one to better understand just what journalists were fighting for then and even now.
“The Post” is on the American Film Institutes top ten movies and it is nominated for Best Actor –Motion Picture Drama (Hanks), Best Actress — Motion Picture Drama (Streep), Best Director (Spielberg), Best Motion Picture — Drama, Best Original Score and Best Screenplay.