starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood and Matthew Rhys
written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer
directed by Steven Spielberg
When I first heard about this movie several months ago I thought it would be another account of the Washington Post newspaper’s expose of the Watergate break-ins in stories written by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. But no, it wasn’t that. The Post is a dramatization of the newspaper’s decision - specifically of owner Katharine Graham’s decision - to publish The Pentagon Papers even after The New York Times had been barred from doing so by a court order. What are “The Pentagon Papers”? They are an internal government reports over 7,000 pages long, documenting the history of U.S. Government’s relations with and strategy towards Vietnam in the post-WWII era. Specifically, the papers revealed that the U.S. had secretly enlarged the scope of its actions in the Vietnam War with the bombings of nearby Cambodia and Laos, coastal raids on North Vietnam, and Marine Corps attacks, none of which were reported in the mainstream media. The documents - classified Top Secret documents that a conscientious person named Daniel Ellsberg, who worked on the report, leaked to The New York Times - condemn U.S. policy six ways from Sunday and amply illustrate collusion and malice, and a strategy of official lies to disguise the reality of the Vietnam War situation from the American public. Frankly, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara knew the Vietnam War was unwinnable. So did President Johnson. So did the Pentagon leadership. But they willingly sacrificed U.S. soldiers to delay national humiliation.
Finally, the film ends with the Watergate break-ins - the break-ins at the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. It was the publication of the Pentagon Papers in addition to the Woodward-Bernstein expose of the Watergate break-ins that elevated The Washington Post from a community newspaper to a national paper. This is what owner Katharine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) and Executive Editor Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks) were struggling with throughout the story. Graham inherited a family business. She was trying to take the paper public to enhance its fiscal solvency and elevate its stature.
It’s interesting to compare how Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee in The Post with how Jason Robards played him in All the President’s Men (1976, directed by Alan J. Pakula). For further comparison of newspaper editors I like to think of how Cary Grant played Walter Burns in His Girl Friday (1940, directed by Howard Hawks, co-starring Rosalind Russell), or Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941, directed by Orson Welles), or Joseph Sommer as McAdam in Absence of Malice (1981, starring Paul Newman and Sally Field, directed by Sydney Pollack).