Prior to the Watergate scandal, The Post leaves viewers on edge

Amanda Morse

“If we live in a world where the government can tell us what we can and cannot print, then the Washington Post has already ceased to exist,” said Editor in chief of The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) in Steven Spielberg’s “The Post.”

Today, new information about the government is publicized daily, but this has not always been the case. We rely on publications to keep us informed on everything, from politics to international affairs to local stories. “The Post” tells the story of a publication that truly redefined journalistic standards by successfully exposing controversial government files. It displays the first significant period in time where publications began exercising and challenging their right to freedom of the press.

Spielberg thoroughly outlines the uncovering of the Pentagon Papers associated with the Vietnam War, yet also portrays the difficulty that Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) experienced being a woman who was the publisher of such a major American newspaper.

The movie begins in 1971 in the midst of the Vietnam war. Having witnessed the tragedies firsthand, military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) makes copies of top secret government files: The Pentagon Papers which he later shares with the Post’s reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk). The papers disclose that the US went into the Vietnam war knowing they had a slim chance for victory. In this scene, Spielberg’s decision to stop the frame for a moment while Ellsberg stood at the exit of the building further further enhanced the anticipation felt by the audience.

Trying to piece together the Pentagon Papers, editors gather in the Bradlee household.
Trying to piece together the Pentagon Papers, editors gather in the Bradlee household.

The decision to publish these papers was not an easy one. Streep effectively portrayed Graham’s initial hesitancy due to her friendship with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who was John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense. At first, she held a more passive opinion and it was clear that she was unsure of the next steps. She was extremely reticent during meetings among her male co-workers, emphasizing the oppression felt by females in the workplace. As the plot progressed, Graham began voicing her opinion more confidently. In a room with all male co-workers urging her to say no, Graham stuck to her beliefs despite initial hesitations.

The overarching theme of women in the workplace is extremely empowering and inspiring as it sheds light on the difficulties women faced and continue to face. Streep’s portrayal of Katharine Graham was outstanding and truly allowed the viewers to see the social gap that occurred when she stepped into a meeting room among other male publishers and co-workers. This was apparent when Graham was unable to speak when given the floor at an all-male meeting. Considering her preparedness going into the event, her inability to speak was surprising.

If it weren’t for the drive and push of Editor in chief Bradlee, her decision may have been to hold back from publishing. Both characters were fully aware that they were rolling the dice, but to them, publishing was the most important thing to let the public know the truth.

The work of Bradlee as Editor in chief was exceptional. Hanks showed the determined mindset that Bradlee possessed even if it meant putting his job on the line to publish the papers. He showed that nothing could get in the way of his decision, as displayed through his permanent desire to publish the papers. His personality shows through as he continuously makes blunt remarks, giving more serious scenes a lighter feeling.

Despite the serious and urgent tone that carried the movie, the joking remarks made by Bradlee and his other editors helped to lighten the mood and keep the audience engaged. While at the office and during conferences, he maintains a serious and blunt tone with his co-workers, generating laughs among the audience.

Throughout the film, themes of love and family create silver linings that let characters push through stressful times. While the editors continued searching the papers scattered about the Bradlee household floors, Bradlee was pictured conversing with his wife Antoinette Bradlee (Sarah Paulson) in her art studio. The dimly lit space gave off a calm and secluded feeling during a time of extreme pressure. Meanwhile, Graham, who communicated with Bradlee over the phone during this scene, was overwhelmed with feelings. After making the decision, she sat on a bed beside her daughter, who calmed Graham’s anxiety over upholding her father’s paper.

In the end, everything paid off. Although it may have been one of the riskiest decisions in The Washington Post’s history, publishing the Pentagon Papers was one that laid the foundation for future scandals to be uncovered, such as Watergate in the year 1972. The casting and cinematography brought this motion picture to life and emphasized the event that defines The Washington Post today. After all, as Bradlee says in the film,“the only way to protect the right to publish is to publish.”