Woman in a Room Full of Men

The Post a film by Steven Spielberg.  With Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts. ****

There’s something irresistible about newspaper movies, the essentially blue collar guys who work there (they’re writers, but live more like private detectives) with their sleeves rolled up and their ties loosened, the looming deadlines, the whole oldstyle craft of getting a paper out, people screaming at each other, forgetting to eat, staying up all night, to fight for truth, justice, and the American way.  I never thought I wanted to be a cop or detective, but used to want to be a newspaper reporter, and might have done it if given half the chance.  It would have been a different life.  But I think I would have liked it.

Newspaper movies are all essentially the same.  There’s some evil afoot, and the paper has discovered it, and they’re battling powerful people and risking their lives and reputations in order to write about it.  All the Presidents Men was like that, and Spotlight, and any number of movies back to The Front Page.  Like All the President’s Men, The Post is taking on the wickedness of the White House.  At one point Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the former Defense Secretary, tells the owner of the Post, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), that defying Presidents in the past was one thing, but this group was something else altogether.  “Nixon is a son of a bitch,” he says, “and if there’s a way to destroy you by God he’ll find it.”  All I could think at that point was Oh, to have Nixon back again.  Those were the good old days.

The big discovery in this movie, as everyone must know by now, was The Pentagon Papers, an academic study which McNamara himself commissioned to examine the Vietnam War.  It was meant to be a historical document, which historians would use to examine the war once it was over.  It was critical not only of McNamara, but of all the Presidents who had had been involved, back to Harry Truman.  It showed that, time and time again, Presidents lied to people about what was actually happening, because they didn’t want to be the first American President to lose a war, or didn’t want to look soft on Communism, or didn’t want to look soft period.  Young men died because these men were trying to burnish their egos.

The report found its way to the Rand Corporation, where a young firebrand named Daniel Ellsberg decided it was his patriotic duty to leak it to the press.  First the New York Times and their superb reporter Neil Sheehan got hold of it.  Then the Washington Post scraped up a copy.  At right about that time, a judge prohibited the Times from publishing the papers.  The Post was faced with the question of what they should do.

The massive and monolithic New York Times was one thing, the Post quite another, a small family newspaper created by the fortune of a single man.  He had passed it on to his son in law, but Phil Graham—though brilliant in his own way—had suffered from what was not yet known as bipolar disorder, and eventually killed himself.  The newspaper came to his wife Katherine, at a time when it was unheard of for a woman to be heading such an institution.  And the events surrounding The Pentagon Papers happened at a time when she was taking the company public, and selling stocks on the New York Stock Exchange.  It was a perilous time to do something risky.  Not only could she have gone to jail, she could have lost her fortune and lost the paper for her heirs.

Playing historical figures seems irresistible for actors, and Tom Hanks apparently knew the editor of the Post, Ben Bradley, slightly.  I assume his characterization is accurate (he almost seems to be playing Jason Robards, who portrayed Bradley in All the President’s Men) and it is beautifully done.  But Meryl Streep’s performance as Katherine Graham, quite apart from what the woman herself might have been like, is brilliant, and so far outshines any other performance—even that of the great Tom Hanks—that it seems unfair to make the comparison.  Graham was an obviously intelligent, capable woman, but hadn’t been in the work world much and was new to it at the time.  She was compromised also because she knew some of the people, Robert McNamara in particular, who had been an advisor and friend to her.  The scenes in which she is deciding what to do about this whole dilemma, when she is talking to McNamara about his role in the war, when she is talking to her daughter about the whole situation, are so nuanced, so complex, so brilliantly performed, that I just marveled.

Streep is playing a woman who was strong but also completely feminine, seemingly out of her league but possessed of a power that men didn’t recognize.  She had been overlooked all her life but didn’t make a big deal of that, just took over the reins and waded into that world of men.  She did something incredibly brave that went against all instincts of her family and the place—in every sense of that term—where she was born.  I can’t imagine another actress performing the role a tenth as well.  But that is almost always true when Streep is the actress.

The film isn’t flawless: the scenes of Sixties protests were almost laughable in the way they were stereotyped—they looked like cartoon protests—and I thought the early scenes of Vietnam battles were unnecessary, though my wife thought they belonged.  Nevertheless, the direction is Spielberg at his competent best, and the script is excellent.  There is a scene between Bradley and his wife (Sarah Paulson) where she explains what a huge step this is for Katherine Graham and how difficult the whole thing is for her; that speech was essential for Bradley and for me as well.  It didn’t come across as didactic; it really seemed to be what a woman might say to her husband in that situation.  And there was a scene when Graham came out of the Supreme Court before a ruling had been delivered, and women were looking at her with admiration: that moment seemed slightly hokey (would that whole long line of women have known who she was?) but was extremely moving as well.  My wife cited that as a scene that had moved her too.

We live in a time when women are stepping forward in a new way, and it’s easy to forget the bravery of women who stepped forward in the past in ways that weren’t as noticeable, and did so entirely on their own.  We live in a time when the press is under siege, from a President who seems a lot more vicious than Nixon, who has no understanding of the value of a free press and wouldn’t care if he did.  Spielberg apparently completed this movie after he had already finished another project, but he decided to bring this one out now.  That was a good decision.  This is a vital movie for this moment.