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‘The Post’ is a newsroom drama with something more

| Friday, January 26, 2018

Diane Park

Newsroom dramas as a genre tend to share a few common traits. Think of classics like “All the President’s Men,” or newer ones like “Spotlight” ­— usually there’s thrilling, heart-pumping music as bespectacled men and women dramatically rip open newspapers and type furiously on typewriters.

“The Post,” directed by Steven Spielberg, has all of these ingredients in abundance. The quick-paced thriller tells the story of what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers and their publication by the Washington Post. The papers were originally leaked by an unhappy government employee to the New York Times. The papers contained troves of sensitive government information about the Vietnam War. TL;DR, the U.S. government had known by 1965 that the Vietnam War was impossible to win, yet chose to continue sending troops overseas and lie about their progress, killing thousands of American and Vietnamese people in the process. When the White House, spurred on by Richard Nixon, sued the Times for violating the Espionage Act, the upper management at the Post had to decide whether to continue to publish the papers and risk the chance of going to prison in the process.

The publication of the Pentagon Papers, the movie argues, marked a defining moment in the history of the Washington Post — the moment the paper shifted from being a local paper to the national, global giant it is today.

The acting in this film is excellent, but that’s to be expected: It’s Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks starring in the same movie, for crying out loud. Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Post. Streep plays Katharine Graham, the reluctant heiress to the Washington Post company who, at the beginning of the film, is still struggling to find her footing as a female leader in a dominantly male industry. Graham, who only inherited the company after her husband committed suicide and struggles to earn the respect of her board members, ultimately has to make the decision: to publish the papers and risk ruining the company and inciting the legal wrath of the government, or to let the true story of the Vietnam War go untold.

In this sense, the whole plot of the movie hinges on Graham’s decision. In order to flesh out the story, the movie weaves between flashes of intimate exploration into Graham’s personal life — her close personal relationship with Henry Kissinger, her relationships to her daughter and granddaughter — as well as fast-paced newsroom action. The result is something of a collage, with the traditional political thriller format studded with scenes that more accurately reflect a biopic.

The marriage of the two genres can be halting at times, but the exploration of Graham’s character ultimately proves valuable. To her credit, Meryl Streep delivers a flawless performance, to the point that I forgot I was watching a reenactment and not raw footage of Katharine Graham herself. Spielberg augments Streep’s incredible acting with interesting camera work that often highlights Graham’s struggles to position herself in male-dominated spaces: We follow Graham’s gaze as she enters a board room to a crowded screen of white men, and get dizzy as the camera spins around her head, mimicking the anxiety that such a difficult decision can induce even in someone as levelheaded as Graham herself. Streep beautifully captures the overwhelming, nebulous self-doubt that comes with taking charge, especially as a woman pioneer.

The moment of the Pentagon Papers defined how major publications, especially the Post, viewed their relationship with Washington. Gone, now, are the days when editors of newspapers would cozy up to the President. It also marked a pivotal point in the life of Katharine Graham, who went on to an illustrious career as a publisher and a champion of gender equity in the workplace. Through its unification of the classic, fast-paced thriller format with a deeper exploration of Graham’s life and work, “The Post” manages to craft a historical narrative that is at once compelling, accurate and strikingly relevant to contemporary discussions today.

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