The Post Makes the Case for a Free Press

Timing is everything, and Steven Spielberg’s The Post could not have come out at a more ideal time. While there are those who would attack the Washington Post and other news organizations with pejorative terms like “fake news,” the film dramatizes why our country needs a free and unfettered press. While the New York Times proclaims on its front page “All the news that’s fit to print,” the Washington Post doesn’t pull punches with its declaration that “Democracy dies in darkness.” 

Risking everything to publish stories based on the purloined Pentagon Papers – the publisher, editors, and reporters could have been charged and jailed – the Washington Post claimed it’s rightful place as a national newspaper. Katharine Graham, who became publisher after her husband, Philip, committed suicide, allowed the paper to print, even though her board of directors warned that she could jeopardize the paper’s financial future. In making the decision to go ahead, Graham finally asserts her authority and makes the paper truly her own.

Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Hanks

Coming on the heels of The Vietnam War, Ken Burns’ exhaustive series for PBS, the film underscores that four presidents, from Truman through Johnson, continually misled the public about U.S. operations in Vietnam. In fact, while the government insisted that the war was being won, behind the scenes those in charge had declared the war unwinnable. President Nixon, who didn’t want to be humiliated losing a war, kept up the deception. 

The film opens in 1969, in the jungles of Vietnam. The war is still raging, claiming both American and Vietnamese lives. Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a former Marine working as a military analyst at the Rand Corporation, is sent to Vietnam as an observer and sees firsthand that things are not going well. While flying back to Washington on a government plane, Ellsberg is asked for his opinion by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). If Ellsberg is surprised when McNamara agrees with his assessment, he’s even more surprised when McNamara faces the press after the flight and delivers an upbeat assessment that the war is being won.

Ellsburg, already disillusioned, makes the decision to photocopy 7,000 pages of confidential documents that reveal what the government has been hiding for more than four decades about the war. After failing to generate any interest from the members of Congress, Ellsberg, in 1971, contacts Neil Sheehan, who had been covering the war for the New York Times. Sheehan and his editors recognized the importance of the papers immediately. A team was put together, and for three months they holed up in a hotel, poring over the papers and deciding how best to tell the story.

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee

The absence of Sheehan’s byline for several months does not go unnoticed by Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Hanks plays Bradlee as the quintessential newspaper man and a fierce competitor. Even though the Times was recognized as the only truly national newspaper in the country, and one whose journalistic credentials far outweighed the Post’s, Bradlee is not about to play second fiddle. He gives an intern $40 with instructions to hop a train to New York and attempt to find out what Sheehan is working on. While the intern doesn’t learn the whole story, he does see a mock-up of the next day’s Times with practically the entire front page blocked out for Sheehan’s story. Bradlee knows the Times has something big and braces for the scoop.

Meanwhile, Katharine Graham is about to face a group of bankers, a first step in her quest to take the paper public to raise much needed cash. Meryl Streep does what she does best: transforming herself into the character, in this case a middle-aged woman plagued with self doubt who is about to take her place on the national stage. Although Graham has rehearsed with Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), the Post’s chairman, she’s tongue-tied when before the bankers. Streep manages to capture Graham’s insecurities in subtle ways, with facial expressions and hand gestures. During the meeting, she actually seems to shrink in size. Despite her lackluster presentation, the offering succeeds and the company will have the cash it needs to go forward.

Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee), David Cross (Howard Simons), John Rue (Gene Patterson), Bob Odenkirk (Ben Bagdikian), Jessie Mueller (Judith Martin), and Philip Casnoff (Chalmers Roberts) 

On June 13, 1971, Bradlee’s fears are realized when the Times comes out with its first story about the Pentagon Papers, making the Post’s front page feature of Tricia Nixon’s wedding seem trivial. Three days later, however, the Nixon administration, citing national security, asks a federal court for an injunction preventing the Times from publishing any further stories. Although the injunction is granted, other newspapers jump in, trying to gain access to the documents.

One of the Post’s writers, Ben Bagdikian (a terrific Bob Odenkirk), has a hunch the papers came from Ellsberg, whom he once worked with at the Rand Corporation. Ellsberg, hiding out in a Boston motel, agrees to give the papers to Bagdikian. The reporter flies back to D.C., and the team gathers at Bradlee’s Georgetown home for some heavy reading.

The Times had more than three months to digest the papers. The Post’s team has far less time. The Herculean effort results in a story, but elation is short-lived when one of the newspaper’s attorneys says that the injunction could be a big problem if the Post’s source was also the Times’ source. If the paper defies the injunction and publishes, the risk would be great. Besides possible jail time for Graham, Bradlee, and others, board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), warns that the newspaper’s recent public offering could be in danger. This is the turning point for Kay Graham, and Streep handles this scene beautifully, allowing us first to see her hesitation, but then her determination to do the right thing. 

Howard Simons (David Cross), Frederick “Fritz” Beebe (Tracy Letts), Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), Chalmers Roberts (Philip Casnoff), Paul Ignatius (Brent Langdon), Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon, seated). 

The Post’s first story runs on June 18. Unlike in the Times’ case, the Justice Department’s request for an injunction is turned down by a federal judge in D.C. Before the case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court, several other newspapers, including the Boston Globe and the Chicago Sun-Times, also publish stories. In a 6-3 decision on June 30, the court reverses the injunction. In the decision, Justice Hugo Black writes: “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham

Graham is transformed by the experience. Not only has she firmly grasped the reins as the newspaper’s publisher, but she understands that she cannot allow her responsibility to be affected by the personal friendships she once enjoyed with those in power. (After reading the Pentagon Papers, she confronts McNamara about his deception regarding the war, reminding him that her son is still in Vietnam fighting.) 

Graham and Bradlee are now a team. While Graham expresses the hope that the battle is now behind them, we know that an even greater challenge is ahead, one that will bring down a president. 

Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

About Charlene Giannetti (335 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid crisis that will be filmed in January, 2020. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.