Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep take on The White House in “The Post”
The battle between journalistic integrity and the maintenance of one’s position is not unheard of in newspaper dramas. However, it comes with an added price in The Post. Editor in chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is still coming down from years of working with Jack Kennedy, “pulling some punches” here and there to remain comfortable. Heiress to the paper Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) can smell it on him, but the business her father handed to her husband – which was given to her upon his suicide – is in danger of going under.
Under Nixon, no newspaper was comfortable. The discovery of documents revealing the federal government’s deliberate lies to the public about U.S. involvement in Viet Nam is barred from discussion in The New York Times by the White House itself. Bradlee knows its time to speak up. However, Graham has just placed The Washington Post on the public market in a bid to save her “little” family business. What will remain of The Post if the president comes after them?
While there was a great deal of potential for the moral conflict at the center of the film, it came dangerously close to falling flat. The initial decision to publish the documents (which were later penned the Pentagon Papers) wasn’t on the table for most of the story; instead, it was a search for the paperwork itself. In the meantime, Graham tackled the issue of opening up shares of her paper to the public market, which proved successful at first and seemed to alleviate concerns that the Post may fail.
During the aforementioned search, the writers, editors, and Bradlee’s intent was crystal clear: to beat the Times to the inside scoop. It was an expected race to make the first headline, which could very easily have been arrested by the cease and desist issued to the Times. But Bradlee and his team kept looking, apparently still intent on publishing when the time came.
Hanks’ performance was one we’ve seen from him before, even recently, in his last Oscar-garnering vehicle, Bridge of Spies – also a collaboration with director Steven Spielberg. His Bradlee was an upstanding man faced with a moral dilemma who had to move his weight around a bit in order to get things done. There’s an antihero in the character – perhaps latent, but nonetheless potent.
Hanks maintained a deceptive sort of charm which was hard to pin down as genuine: casual with interns and secretaries, hard on his editorial staff, yet loving and protective towards his daughter. However, his moral decision only came when the Post’s lawyers advised him against the publication of the story. Even then, it took no dark night of the soul for him to emerge with a decision: he was not about to keep this truth from the American public.
It was Graham’s choice, then, which weighed heaviest. She, having been involuntarily thrust into the seat of power at this paper, was wrestling with the intentions of her father and husband before her, the livelihoods of her employees, and the dignity of her family. The choice alone to open the paper’s stock was momentous – but not enough to make a fully engaging film.
The added dilemma of publishing the Pentagon Papers gave her choice – one to be made by her alone – the additional heft it needed to keep the audience intrigued. Yet where was the story while she mulled it over? Following Bradlee and his team as they tussled with the lawyers and fished through the documents for stories, racing against a deadline.
Meanwhile, Graham was entertaining guests at her home, among them Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the Secretary of State under Nixon who was also implicated in the Viet Nam cover-up. Granted, this is where Graham’s moral dilemma deepened; she had a past relationship with McNamara and the publication of the story would be a bad look on him.
So yes, there’s a buildup of tension and conflict there. But – and whether or not this is how it really happened is inconsequential, because Hollywood is Hollywood and entertainment is entertainment – Graham’s constant putting-off of the issue was simply an unbecoming plot device. Every time a decision was to be made on whether or not to print, it landed on Graham’s shoulders – and she deflected. Then the audience was redirected to the growing moral dilemma in the editing room which, in the end, didn’t matter because the decision was still Graham’s. The very character whose shoulders the paper’s integrity rested on was hardly in sight, and when she was, her choice could always be counted on: to wait.
That isn’t to say that Streep’s performance wasn’t memorable. She was in every way a woman overwhelmed by the disproportionate male influence on her life, business, and, in essence, her family. She was not trusted by many of those investing in her company and whom she employed largely because she was a woman. The combined stress of these issues remained in her every motion; there was hardly a moment when she didn’t appear to be diffusing a bomb in her head.
Perhaps that’s why Graham chose to deflect, to host dinner parties instead of talk to her editor in chief about the survival of her paper. She’d already handled the delicate negotiation that made the Post solvent once again, which must have weighed heavily on her as both the owner of the paper and widow of its former magnate.
Regardless, it would have been encouraging to see Graham defend herself more throughout the film. Where chairman Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts) spoke for her in a meeting with the investors, she could have asserted her all-too-questioned dominance as the head of the business. When Bradlee insisted he not be told what to do when it came to the women’s section of the Post, Graham could have held firm that her word – as a woman and his boss – was law.
In the end, it was her choice to publish that really counted. And it came at the discouragement of just about all of her advisors, many of whom were seeking solely to save their own jobs.
Still, The Post’s emphasis on the humbling magnificence of print itself was tremendous. Whole montages were dedicated to the very machinery of mass printing – all mechanical, as it was back in 1971. The ink-stained brass and steel of gears and type blocks glowed in a warm, almost holy light. Placement of the camera in the heart of an apparatus that whisked paper up over one’s head and out to a labyrinth of rollers and levers conjured images of an industrial temple.
It’s fitting, then, that the film concluded with Bradlee and Graham walking side by side past the presses as countless papers spiral upwards towards the ceiling, carried with an apparent effortlessness that suggested they were drawn out to the public by the pure, divine need for truth.