By Soh Ying Qi (18A01C)
Spoiler alert: you already know what happens in this film.
Not because it looks like standard Hollywood period-drama fare, comprising an ensemble cast led by established stars, a screenplay peppered with references to “the First Amendment right to free speech” and “Based on a true story” tacked onto the end of its trailer. But if I told you that in 1971 The New York Times and The Washington Post were sued in the Supreme Court of the United States for publishing a set of politically sensitive documents, you’d know the outcome of the trial before ever picking up a single history book.
The fact that both publications still exist today and thrive as two of America’s most reputable newspapers tells you all you need to know about the conclusion to the saga of the Pentagon Papers, a 47-volume history of US involvement in the Vietnam War commissioned by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The papers exposed nearly 30 years of the US government’s lies about American troops’ progress in the Vietnam War, under four successive presidential administrations dating back to Harry S. Truman in 1945.
As with most films of its kind, history is the biggest spoiler for The Post, yet director Steven Spielberg’s deft storytelling breathes life into a series of events that has been public knowledge for more than 40 years. The Washington Post will publish the papers. The Supreme Court will decide in favour of the news companies. Free speech will save the day. These are things that happened in real life in 1971, things that we know to be true; but nearly every scene is fraught with well-crafted dramatic tension and every plot development feels new and exciting. Towards the end of the film, the pressure of a looming deadline is almost nerve-wracking in its razor-sharp precision, where every passing minute twists your stomach even tighter even though you know perfectly well the printing presses will eventually be fired up in the nick of time.
As a historical drama, the film far exceeds expectations, shedding some much-needed light on the state of American politics at the time and lending fresh perspective to events many of us are already familiar with. But as much as history is something for us to pore over and enshrine in memory, it also informs our understanding of the present. It’s for this reason that The Post has widely been interpreted as a response to the Trump administration’s gradual rolling back of civil liberties and delegitimisation of the media; what better way to galvanise the public to keep fighting for freedom than a reminder that this is a problem America has already defeated? It’s not surprising that the word “timely” appears more than once in reviews of the film by several different outlets: Vox, Slate, Forbes, and The Hollywood Reporter among them. (And if that doesn’t seem like a lot, try Rolling Stone, The Guardian or Variety.)
And admittedly, it’s difficult to use any other word to describe a film that was rushed to production and completed in just 9 months, an urgency which, by Spielberg’s own admission, “was because of the current climate of this administration, bombarding the press and labelling the truth as fake if it suited them.” Much has been made in the past year of the administration’s assault on truth, with the rise of terms like “alternative facts” and “fake news”—it is no wonder that The Post takes on a decidedly political tone that extends far beyond Nixon’s term (as depicted in the film) and draws subtle but pointed parallels between the events of ‘71 and ‘17.
“The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish.”
– Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) in The Post
The film’s implication that little has changed in four decades is one that carries over to its other major theme: old-fashioned sexism. Publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham’s (Meryl Streep) first scene sets the tone for the film’s acute portrayal of gender: “Can we just do the—can we just do the numbers… just one more time?” she stammers to chairman of The Washington Post Company Frederick Sessions “Fritz” Beebe (Tracy Letts), with a nervousness that’s made almost palpable, and fittingly so. Of course, she nails every last one of them: how many shares the company is selling, the precise amount of additional revenue generated by higher prices, how many journalists’ salaries it would pay for—and, perhaps most importantly, why investing in good reporters matters. All of this only makes her later nerves-induced stumble at the board meeting—staffed entirely by uptight men in stiff suits—all the more heartbreaking, as Graham wordlessly flips through her notes and Beebe takes over her lines.
It’s an ache that will be familiar to many women in the audience: Graham’s nervousness and apprehension feels like a distinctly feminine trait, which in itself is unsurprising. Yet it is Streep’s masterful performance that takes it beyond the realm of withering-woman archetypes and turns it into something relatable for everyone. It’s hard to watch her tremble with anxiety or fall over her words and not feel like you did when faced with equally tense situations. Graham’s character, in Streep’s hands, is astute but not overdone, straddling the fine line between a pointed statement on sexism and a piece of character development that everyone in the audience can root for. And that’s exactly what you end up doing towards the end of the film, as Graham’s own finest moment finally arrives: after nearly two hours of (albeit well-acted) hemming and hawing, her final scenes serve as a sweet moment of justice.
That being said, The Post’s representation of gender issues, while treated with surgical precision under Spielberg’s superb direction, feels somewhat forced at times. One too many shots of Graham in meetings with men, being interrupted by men, and attempting to hold her own with men run the risk of making the film’s handling of this theme slightly heavy-handed. The message is crystal-clear: sexism still exists and has negative consequences for everyone, not just women. The Post makes it impossible not to realise this.
Nevertheless, the careful treatment of its female characters tips The Post’s handling of gender issues firmly into the realm of “imperfect but commendable”. This is buoyed by Streep’s sensitive portrayal of Graham and an intelligent, razor-sharp screenplay that takes great care to highlight the role of women in the story, including reporter Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon), Graham’s own daughter Lally Weymouth (Alison Brie) and editor’s wife Antoinette “Tony” Bradlee (Sarah Paulson). The conversation near the end of the film between Tony and her husband, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), is one of the film’s finest scenes, carried by (the otherwise criminally underutilised) Paulson’s powerful delivery.
“When you’re told time and time again that you’re not good enough, that your opinion doesn’t matter as much; when they don’t just look past you; when to them, you’re not even there; when that’s been your reality for so long, it’s hard not to let yourself think it’s true.”
– Tony Bradlee to Ben Bradlee, in The Post
It’s hard not to see The Post as the most blatant Oscar bait there is: it follows the winning formula of a star-studded cast and crew (provided by Streep, Hanks and Spielberg), subject matter drawn from a critical period in American history, and a main theme centred around American liberal ideals, particularly freedom of speech. Bonus points for depicting journalists doing the defending of the First Amendment and the taking down of corrupt institutions. The issues that The Post deals with are not new; it is the fact that they have recently become relevant in an increasingly politically-charged world that allows the film to convey its subtle but incisive social commentary.
“I always wanted to be part of a small rebellion.”
– Washington Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) to Ben Bradlee, in The Post
Still, I firmly believe that The Post deserves every accolade for its sheer technical and creative brilliance, among them longtime Spielberg collaborators John Williams’ gorgeous musical score and Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography. The latter makes every tiny detail, even the messy stray hairs on Graham’s head, look visually resplendent. It’s not often that I think about clothes while watching a film, but costume designer Ann Roth’s use of colour is particularly notable for weaving symbolism into what is otherwise entirely typical 70s clothing: for example, as the film progresses, Kay Graham’s clothes change from darker, more muted grey tones to brighter gold hues, an apt metaphor for a woman who eventually comes into her own as the successful businesswoman she never expected to be.
At the end of the day, The Post is a story about doing the right thing even in the face of fear; it’s a message anyone should be glad to remember, not just during Trump’s term but beyond it, not just in America but across the globe. President Richard Nixon’s voice (taken from real tape recordings made in the White House) insisting that “from now on, no reporter from The Washington Post is ever to be in the White House” is a stark reminder of the importance of press freedom and government accountability.
Of course, his words become a self-fulfilling prophecy as Nixon himself becomes the last loose end to tie up. Being a film about The Washington Post set in the 1970s, The Post ends with the expected Watergate teaser, beginning with security guard Frank Wills’ discovery of tape covering some door latches in the Democratic National Committee building and ending with the film’s final line: “I think we might have a break-in in progress at the Watergate.”
What I wouldn’t give to see a sequel—yet when all is said and done, when all the politics is long gone, it is perhaps worthwhile to recall the motto of The Washington Post itself, emblazoned on the header of its website: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
How very, very true.
(Cover image source: https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/steven-spielberg-post-named-best-202248361.html)