The Post follows the story of the Washington Post editorial board in the mid 1960s: their financial struggles as the newspaper becomes a public corporation, their competition with the New York Times, and most of all, their decision on how to report on the Vietnam War. It soon becomes apparent that successive presidents had covered up how badly the war was going. But faced with a Nixon administration threatening to sue the paper for exposing state secrets, the Washington Post’s owner, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), must decide whether to succumb to government intimidation or defend the freedom of the press.
The film does several things extremely well. The acting is absolutely superb. Tom Hanks, as the editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, is fantastic. Hanks portrays two personalities: the ruthless editor who will turn to illegal methods to get a scoop and beat the competition, and the man dedicated to freedom of speech and an accountable government. This apparent contradiction is acted wonderfully, paying homage to a historical figure. Meryl Streep also deserves a special mention; Katherine Graham is a kind and thoughtful figure, who must balance the financial interests of her family’s newspaper, her late father’s desire to keep control of the paper in family hands, and a moral duty to report the facts and uphold high journalistic standards. She repeats a catchphrase, “quality drives profits,” showing her resistance to trivial stories. Streep presents a conflicted character with as much nuance and emotional depth as possible.
I loved the exploration of gender inequality. Graham, having inherited the Washington Post upon her husband’s death, is very much a woman in a man’s world. She resents being pushed around and patronised. She calls out Bradlee’s hypocrisy when he accuses her of being too close to politicians, pointing out his and his wife’s friendship with the Kennedys. However, she is never rude or abrasive, understanding the need to keep men happy – be it the bankers who want lower share prices when the paper goes public, the journalists worried about being sued by Nixon, and even the politicians worried their reputation will be ruined if her newspaper publishes the truth. Graham faces up to her patriarchal world using her charm and powers of persuasion, knowing the futility of overt confrontation.
The Post does a brilliant job of teaching history, summarising the Vietnam War’s origins and increasing unpopularity concisely and without confusion. Real life clips of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson are also artfully used. The setting is perfectly accurate. A particularly humorous touch was the scenes of Richard Nixon on the telephone in the White House, with Nixon’s infamous temper and slyness on full display. If you are unfamiliar with the Vietnam War or American history generally, this is a great place to start. Equally, historians will appreciate the political satire and frequent references to various historical events such as Watergate. The Post is a quintessentially anti-war film, portraying the Vietnam War’s advocates as fundamentally dishonest and corrupt, and anti-war protestors as heroic. But its main message is the importance of freedom of expression and the independence of the media – a perfect retort to Trump’s constant cries of “Fake News!”
A shortcoming of the film is the pace. After a convincing introduction, it takes too many scenes to introduce the main characters; the story does not begin to properly develop until almost halfway in. There is a lot of interesting but ultimately inconsequential dialogue. Many of these early scenes were intended to be funny, but fell a bit flat. There are too many characters, many of whom make no impression and don’t have much of a role in influencing any outcomes, but nevertheless take up too much time. Instead of this lengthy chit-chat, I thought an exploration of the Washington Post’s history, including Graham’s father and brother’s role in establishing its ethos would have been more interesting. Perhaps a few flashbacks would have helped.
Overall, The Post is a solid production – well worth watching for the cast, the history, and unique story. While not a heart-pounding thriller, the film is profoundly insightful and thought-provoking. I learnt a lot and was thoroughly entertained
– by Owen Bell
*Images courtesy of IMDb