During the summer of 1971, Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of classified information describing how American presidents as far back as Truman knew that the Vietnam War was an unwinnable war, but continued to send troops to fight for the American people. It began in June 13, 1971 when New York Times publishing a series of front-page articles based on the information contained in the Pentagon Papers. After days of publishing more and more of the information on the documents the New York Times was barred from writing and printing anything else about the Vietnam War or they would be sued by the American government.
This decision by President Nixon and his administration lead to a “revolution” of small, local papers standing up for what they believe to be right and publishing the papers themselves, starting with Katherine Graham’s family-owned paper The Washington Post. Finally after days in court, the Supreme Court came to a decision on June 30 with a ruling of 6-3 in favor of the New York Times, saying that the government had failed to prove harm to national security, and that publication of the papers was justified under the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of the press.
This is the story of Steven Spielberg’s latest film, The Post, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. The movie runs on nostalgia, for the way a newsroom used to run and for the way that the news was a trusted source of media before the era of politicians claiming “fake news,” but it also runs on the hope for a better tomorrow because of the people of our past. Katherine Graham, gracefully played by Meryl Streep, is the main focal point of the film, the daughter of Eugene Meyer, the man who bought the Washington Post after its former owners drove it to bankruptcy.
The company was originally given to her husband, Phil Graham, who ran the company for 11 years, but due to his early death in 1959 the company was handed over to Katherine who never thought that the Post would ever be hers. In the beginning of the film, Graham is shown as a timid women, afraid to speak up in company meetings even though she knows the information better than any man in the room and continually listens to the men around her how to run her company. Graham’s counterpart is The Post’s longtime editor Ben Bradlee, portrayed by Tom Hanks, a hardworking editor who always wanted to be one step ahead of their competitor The New York Times, so when he was given the opportunity, in the form of thousands of classified government documents, he wanted to put out the story no matter the consequence.
Bradlee is seen as Katherine Graham’s journalistic conscious. Graham grew up around many high-up politicians, including Robert McNamara, due to her father’s and husband’s status in Washington, but Bradlee, who was friends with John F. Kennedy before his assassination, gave Graham the lecture that turns the movie from past the present. At the time of Kennedy’s death, Bradlee and his wife immediately went to be by First Lady Jackie Kennedy, but as the First Lady, still covered in her husband’s blood, was being consoled by Bradlee’s wife she demanded Bradlee that none of what he saw or heard was to be published in his paper.
That is when he knew that journalists and politicians could never be friends because they would always be on opposite sides. This is where the story becomes a foreshadowing to this generation’s problems between the media and the government. The media has never and will never be a friend to the fellow politician because while the government will always be seeking to hide things from and lie to the American people, the media will always be trying to find a way to inform the people of the truth and that is what Katherine Graham must learn before it truly becomes her company.
Not her fathers, not her husbands, but hers. In the end, Katharine Graham published the Papers and was sued by the United States government along with the New York Times and several other small papers that got the courage to publish as well after Graham’s decision.
This film is taken straight out of a textbook, but it is the one story we needed this year the most.
Movies like The Post has moments of wishful thinking and either glorifies or demonizes journalists, relying on heroes and villains when in reality the true world of news has no heroes or villains, just people trying to hide their mistakes and the people who are willing to tell the truth no matter the ramifications afterward. But given the recent assault on journalism and the truth, this heroizing is irresistible. As a filmmaker, Spielberg inevitably comes down to the side of optimism, here, that hopefulness feels right. It also feels like a rallying cry.