For Stephen Spielberg, the story of a rampant Republican government wielding its power to silence the free press was simply too prescient to reject; the urgency apparent even during Trump's notorious campaign and before his employment of "alternative facts". A believer in objective truth, Spielberg set to work assembling a cast and crew, creating the film in 11 months – aware of the urgency of its message to modern America and beyond.
The Post tells the story of a pivotal point in American history, when multiple news agencies fought the might of the United States government in defense of their right to publish freely and to pierce the veil of propaganda shrouding ugly truths: the futility and corruption that is the American involvement in the Vietnam War. Leaked Pentagon Papers altered civil society’s perception of those at the top, and brought the power of an independent press to the fore. Through a seemingly constant haze of cigarette smoke, the inevitable byproduct of industrious journalists, the film takes us into the competitive, fast-paced world of 1970’s news media, into print rooms, offices, paper-littered hotel rooms and to untraceable payphones on downtown streets. Unsurprisingly, Spielberg delivers a stylish, perfectly paced film with dialogue toeing the line between riveting drama, subtle humour, and immersive realism, replete with a stellar cast.
While Spielberg does succeed in covering the bases of the 1970’s zeitgeist – career women of all ethnicities succeeding in male dominated fields, grass roots movements shaking the foundations of elites and governments, peace movements superseding nationalism (etc) – the film does reduce real and controversial characters to good and bad figures. Washington Post owner Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) struggle to come to terms with the disjuncture between their roles as purveyors of journalistic truth and integrity, and their identities as members of America’s old money elite – lunching and capering with Kennedys and Kissingers on long weekends. Ultimately, by choosing to publish the incendiary Papers, they symbolically cut their ties with the establishment and help usher in a new meritocratic age. In one scene, Bradlee remarks to Graham, “the days of us all smoking cigars together down on Pennsylvania avenue are over”, and in another, Streep regally descends court room steps in front of a very deliberate line-up of adoring female onlookers. However, unfortunately for the greater part of the world, and despite the respectable efforts the film relays, much of the media is still in the hands of or under the influence of media empire moguls and politicians – including the Washington Post. And the notion that a very rich woman inheriting a company from a deceased husband “clears the way” for all of womankind was dubious even in 1971. Later, Graham would write that the women’s lib movement gave her the confidence to trust herself and promote equality in the company, suggesting more nuance than the film can afford to digress into.
However, The Post is full of convincing, sincere idealism and faith in the potential for good in mankind, leaving the viewer with a feeling of determination, and also a renewed belief in the power of collective action. It captures a fascinating period in U.S history and explores contradictions where modernity sat alongside the oldest, deepest running veins of elitism and privilege; it reminds us that we must support our free press if we wish to remain free. In the years since the Nixon administration, news media has changed drastically; it panders now to our pre-conceived beliefs and our boredom, heralding a post-truth era of fake-news, social media echo chambers and click-bait links designed to distract rather than inform. At a time where the president denounces journalists who would criticize him as “sick people”, enemies of America rather than protectors of a most vital freedom, The Post serves a timely reminder of the battles fought and won on newsroom floors by tenacious journalists against corruption and deception.