December 9, 2017 – The Post is a suspense drama based on the publishing of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times and the Washington Post in 1971. The entire movie, however is built around the character of Katharine “Kay” Graham (played by Meryl Streep) the owner of the Post, and the difficulties she faced in deciding whether or not to publish news stories based on classified government documents.
The other key figure in this story is that of the editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) who is furious that the New York Times scooped the Post on the Pentagon Papers story. He is determined to find a source for the Pentagon Papers so the Post can get the story too. When a Federal Judge enjoins the New York Times from writing more stories based on the Pentagon Papers, Bradlee sees an opening.
The Post is on shaky legal ground with the story. Both the Post and the New York Times were advised by lawyers that that owners and others at both papers could be prosecuted under espionage laws for revealing classified information. However, the Pentagon Papers weren't really the stuff of spy novels. The papers were actually from a kind of academic study into the history of the Vietnam War, going back decades. The purpose of the study was to identify policy mistakes of the past, so that administrators could avoid those same mistakes in the future.
The news stories based on the Pentagon Papers were highly embarrassing to President Lyndon Johnson, President Richard Nixon and others who had lied about the Vietnam War. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (played by Bruce Greenwood of “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”) was also embarrassed by the stories. McNamara was a good friend of Kay Graham, another reason she was hesitant to run the stories.
The film opens with Daniel Ellsberg (played by Matthew Rhys of “Burnt”) going on a patrol with troops in Vietnam and writing a report on conditions there. Getting off the plane back in the U.S., Ellsberg is appalled to see McNamara lying to the press about the war. It was not hard for some people who knew him to figure out that Ellsberg was behind the leaking of the Pentagon Papers to the press.
Once the Post found Ellsberg, hiding in a motel room with reams of papers, Bradlee knew the Post had the material on a major series about the Vietnam War. The New York Times was still fighting a legal battle to publish more stories based on the Pentagon Papers, so the Post had a clear field, except for the fact that the newspaper could be in serious legal difficulty if it ran the stories.
Adding to the complexity of the situation for Kay Graham was the fact that she was selling stock in the company. The newspaper had been family held for years, but it was going public with a sale of over one million shares. Legal problems with the Pentagon Papers could badly affect the stock sale, or even stop it.
Streep plays Kay Graham as a high society woman who had never held a job prior to the death of her husband, which left her with ownership of the Post. She was raised to be acquiescent and accommodating to men. She was frequently ignored and her opinions were not respected. But now, she had to make a very tough decision, and she rose to the occasion. She proved once and for all she could be tough when she had to be, and she could also take risks if she thought it was the right thing to do.
Streep gives a marvelous, subtle performance in this film, which is really a great film about journalism. It was great to see linotype machines, old style typesetting, old school copy editing and some wise old reporters and editors doing the work, getting the story. That's my background. I am a journalist, and I've been there and done that. There aren't a lot of great films about journalism, “Spotlight” (2015) was one and “All the President's Men” (1976) was another, but this one ranks right up there with the best. This film rates an A.
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