Film in Review: Her Guy Bradlee

Charles Taylor

As the Washington Post reporter Ben Bagdikian in Steven Spielberg’s The Post, Bob Odenkirk wears dress shirts that are not quite white and not quite beige, not quite green and not quite yellow. Instead, they’re a muted and sickly combination of all four, the color of drapes in a rented room in which you pray never to live. And they fit right in with the rest of Bagdikian’s ensemble. When he’s calling a confidential source from an out-of-the-way pay phone, you can see the trousers of his brown suit (would he wear any other color?) puddling at his ankles. Bagdikian’s sartorial choices are matched by the others on display in the Post newsroom, like the striped short-sleeve dress shirts and defiantly unmatching ties of managing editor Howard Simons (David Cross), half of which seem to be forever hanging out of his trousers. The costumes for The Post are the work of the eighty-six-year-old Ann Roth, the best American costume designer since Edith Head. Roth’s great taste has always expressed itself in her instinctive talent for melding the traits of character with the physical particulars of actors. It’s unlikely any artist of Roth’s stature has ever devoted the loving attention she does here to the ill-dressed American male. And this blithe schlumpiness is essential to the movie’s appeal. The Post turns out to be about how our civic and political and journalistic traditions, which so often seem to exist on high, detached from our everyday existence, are given life by the rumpled actions of rumpled people. It’s about treating the Bill of Rights as living law and not entombed history.

            The movie opens in 1971, when the Washington Post was still thought of as a regional paper, not having the weight of its local competitors, let alone the New York Times. The owner and publisher is Katharine Graham, who had taken over the paper in 1963 when her husband, the publisher Philip Graham, committed suicide. (The Post had been in Mrs. Graham’s family for years; when her father retired in the mid-1940s, he put his son-in-law in charge.) The paper is strapped for cash, and Mrs. Graham, played here by Meryl Streep, is about to take it public. She’s being coached on how to sell the public offering to her dubious executive board, and Streep’s line readings of the canned justifications that have been written for Graham suggest the anxiety straining beneath the mien of public composure. You can hear a slight breathlessness in the measured voice Streep uses here, even in her early scenes with her headstrong and charmingly arrogant executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). She’s his boss (Graham hired Bradlee), and yet, in a breakfast meeting at some stuffy D.C. hotel, she’s deferential to him. The key to just how likable Streep’s Katharine Graham turns out to be is that she never loses that tinge of anxiety–it gives her the same common touch as Bagdikian’s godawful shirts and baggy suits–even as she finds her footing and confidently assumes the power that goes along with her position. Christ knows she’s got a lot be anxious over.

            The Post opens with a brief prologue set in 1966, when Daniel Ellsberg, then employed by the Rand Corporation, witnesses just how badly the war in Vietnam is going for American troops, has his opinion confirmed to him by LBJ’s defense secretary, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), and then watches as McNamara lies to the press, painting a booster’s view of the progress the United States is making in the war. As we know, Ellsberg’s response to McNamara’s lies was to begin Xeroxing the secret study McNamara had commissioned detailing the U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam: forty-seven volumes (Ellsberg eventually copied forty-three) showing America’s interference in the country’s elections and the public lies of presidents from Eisenhower to LBJ, lies that allowed American soldiers to be sacrificed for a war the powers that be knew couldn’t be won. The Post–which, after the corridors-of-power dullness of some early scenes turns out to be an absolutely terrific newspaper melodrama–begins to find its footing after the New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan publishes a bombshell story based on the papers Ellsberg has provided him. The movie catches fire when a federal judge, at the behest of the Nixon administration, enjoins the Times from continuing to publish the contents of the papers, and the Washington Post, which had been able to obtain the papers through Ben Bagdikian’s friendship with Daniel Ellsberg, steps in to continue. The Supreme Court ruling that resulted from the Post’s refusal to back down was a 6–3 affirmation of the press’s role as a guardian against reckless government secrecy.

            But before that was possible, Graham had to agree to back Bradlee, who was exhorting her about freedom of the press, along with the reporters ready to quit if the paper caved in, over the warnings of an executive board that, as the movie portrays it, viewed her as a foolish woman thrust into a position she was completely unprepared to hold. We see Post board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), the epitome of white-haired patrician condescension, telling Graham that her newfound investors are ready to pull out if the Post publishes the contents of the Pentagon Papers. Parsons stands for all the men in all the rooms in which Katharine Graham was the only woman, convinced that they know the best course of action for her to take. In the course of The Post those rooms keep getting bigger: the Post boardroom, the New York Stock Exchange, and, finally, the Supreme Court.

            Meryl Streep can be a whiz in comedy (her Julia Child in Julie & Julia is one of the real delights of contemporary American movie acting), but a dutiful drag in drama. And her recent penchant for scenery chewing in pictures like Doubt and August: Osage County has not been encouraging. Her performance in The Post is, I think, one of her best. It’s not just her Katharine Graham that’s likable; this performance reminds you of what can be so damned likable about Meryl Streep.

            Katharine Graham’s story is, of course, a story of all the ways women are discouraged from thinking of themselves as capable of occupying a position of power. But who the hell wouldn’t be nervous in her situation? We all have tough days at work, but few of us are asked to uphold a bedrock principle of democracy that could lead to both a real possibility of going to jail and the financial collapse of our business. Streep’s Graham is not a woman whose position has insulated her from worry, not someone who has ever learned to deploy social deportment in order to disguise that worry. Streep has a remarkable scene in which she confronts her friend Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood nails the essentially reptilian side of McNamara’s personality) and asks him, among other things, how, as her friend, he could have withheld knowledge that put the life of her son (who served in Vietnam) in jeopardy. She never does anything untoward, and yet you feel the momentousness of her breaking every social convention she knows by making the accusation. At one point Graham throws a party for a friend, and Roth dresses Streep in a floaty caftan, just the sort of thing a hostess would choose to convey lightness and joie de vivre as she circulates among the guests. But the party coincides with the moment when Graham has to make the decision about whether or not to go ahead with publishing the Pentagon Papers, and though Streep is lost in that caftan, you can sense her body trudging forward, weary but headed in the right direction. As the scene progresses, and she finds her voice, I swear you can see Streep’s spine elongating bit by bit as she stands up straighter. The canniness of The Post and of Streep’s performance is that while it chooses to see Graham’s anxiety as normal and recognizable human behavior, it presents her courage as something extraordinary. That’s significant at a time when we tend to fetishize victimization rather than celebrate the fortitude that allows people to overcome it. The Post invites us to revel in Katharine Graham’s accomplishment rather than her marginalization.

            Seven Spielberg is working here from a script by the thirty-one-year-old screenwriter Liz Hannah, who is making her feature debut (the script was given a rewrite by Josh Singer), and The Post must be one of the great dumb-luck stories to come out of Hollywood. It’s easy to see why, in the troughs of the Trump era, a filmmaker would be drawn to a story about the press trying to maintain its freedom against an adversarial and criminal presidency. But nobody could have foreseen that the movie’s other subject, the obstacles faced by women in power, would be so of the moment. The Post comes at you with this double whammy, and it’s to Spielberg’s credit that he–mostly–doesn’t overplay his hand. He can’t resist a sisterhood-is-powerful moment when a female Supreme Court clerk tells Graham she hopes she wins (it works because the actress playing the clerk, Coral Peña, is so vivid and appealing). And there’s one real stinker of a moment when we see Graham pass through a crowd of silent women who gaze at her reverently. It’s like those phony movie scenes when the music swells and we get a low-angle shot of a statue of whoever the movie’s been about. For a moment, Spielberg turns Katharine Graham into Mt. Rushmore.

            Those are minor lapses. Spielberg knows that the liveliest place to be is not in the wood-paneled rooms ruled by the old-boy network at its fustiest but in the smoky ones where people who combine gutsiness and irritability and brains and slobby persistence choose to agitate power. The newsroom we see in The Post is, as re-created by production designer Rick Carter, the battered and grungy one that predates the sleek fluorescent-lit newsroom re-created for All the President’s Men. Spielberg and his cinematographer, Janusz Kamiński, lavish love on the sight of pneumatic tubes carrying copy to editors and pages meticulously composed in silver linotype. (At the New York screening I attended, the sight of a copyeditor using a red pencil to edit a story by hand was enough to move one audience member to applause. Maybe a rebuke for the Times’s recent decision to gut its editing desk?)

            The centerpiece of the movie, though, is a long extended sequence that takes place in the den of Ben Bradlee’s D.C. home. Having finally gotten hold of the Pentagon Papers thanks to Bagdikian’s maneuvering, Bradlee, wanting to make sure nothing leaks out, assembles his news team at his house to begin sorting through the unnumbered pages and assembling the story that will emerge from them. We watch as this tastefully appointed suburban den fills with smoke, as carpets and sofas are covered in files and papers, as the reporters sprawl among all that paper, as the Post’s legal counsel (who looks as if he doesn’t shave yet–he’s played by Jesse Plemons) tries to look stern and make headway against the reporters who regard him as an interfering pup, as Bradlee’s wife, Tony (Sarah Paulson), winds her way through the scene bearing a tray of sandwiches and his little daughter tries to make a quick buck selling lemonade. It’s an extended version of the stateroom sequence from A Night at the Opera with the reporters as the Marx Brothers, serene in the midst of the chaos they are creating.

            The Marx Brothers’ great project, of course, was to shred every vestige of sense and sanity before our eyes, and to make a monkey of anyone who clung to that stability. The reporters in The Post are similarly out to reorder the world, but in the name of sanity. They want to shred the idea that power should be met with legal protection and public deference rather than questioning.

            The Post could so easily have been a stuffy civics lesson, and Spielberg could have retreated into the role of stodgy prestige filmmaker that sometimes seems to have swallowed the dazzling showman. But as in his hugely entertaining Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies, Spielberg opts for the livelier side of civic virtue. There are moments where I longed for the tabloid pace of brash newspaper movies like Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 or Samuel Fuller’s Park Row. But Spielberg, thank God, has no interest in being the Stanley Kramer of his era. His output has been highly variable, just as that of a lot of the great directors of the studio era was. But Spielberg no longer seems to be imitating the conventions of old movies. Instead he’s bringing them off like an old pro–which, at seventy-one, he is. (His woefully underrated 2011 film of War Horse was a great reminder of just how emotionally overwhelming a beautifully made Hollywood melodrama can be.) When John Williams’s score turns percussive and dramatic as bundles of the Post fresh off the printing press and bearing the Pentagon Papers story are loaded onto delivery trucks, the thrill we feel is a particularly Hollywood thrill, and what a pleasure it still is. Spielberg flirts with his share of We the People moments. But The Post grounds its sense of patriotism in that grumbling ensemble of reporters, whose expected cynicism hides an almost romantic faith in the country’s founding documents.

            Hanks’s Ben Bradlee shares that faith, and yet Spielberg has the good sense to present him, and Hanks the good sense to play him, as a rascal. Bradlee strides through the movie in striped dress shirts (the only shirts that fit in the entire newsroom), sleeves rolled up, tie loosened, all in good working-reporter style. And Hanks speaks with a slight cragginess to his voice (as he has admitted, his version of Bradlee is also partly an homage to Jason Robards’s portrayal of Bradlee in All the President’s Men), the voice of someone as ready to drop an expletive as to drive home a salient point. In both style and principles, Hanks’s Bradlee stands in contrast to all the executive stooges hovering around the reporters, ready to make journalism safe for the Nixon administration. He’s an establishment figure who can qualify as a hero.

            This is the first time Hanks and Streep have acted together and there’s a lovely shared amusement between them, the amusement of two very different people who complement each other and whose faith in the partnership allows each to do great things. In essence, the story of Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham is a love story, a thoroughly platonic one. It could have, with a little tweaking, fit into one of Howard Hawks’s movies about people who fall for each other’s professionalism and competence. While it’s true we rarely see this kind of relationship between women and men in the movies, it’s equally rare for a movie to show us just how fulfilling working alongside the right people can be.

            The Post doesn’t take up the question of the legacy of Daniel Ellsberg: how his principled revelations spawned the likes of Julian Assange. Nor does it consider the willful naïveté that now exists in some corners of journalism, like that of Glenn Greenwald, with his near-Stalinist insistence that all government secrecy is inherently nefarious. But there’s nothing dishonest about the movie’s choosing to celebrate the virtues of Ellsberg’s bravery and the bravery of the papers that gave space to his discoveries.

            From The Front Page (1931) through Spotlight (2015), newsrooms have been great settings for American movies because the fast, wisecracking, disrespectful tone reporters take has seemed a heightened representation of our national character–especially when it takes time to mock the bathos American life constantly threatens to drown in. Without that attitude The Post might seem too much like cheerleading (Mrs. Graham Goes to Washington?). But I don’t think we should be embarrassed to feel buoyed by its rousing moments.

            It’s so goddamned easy to feel hopeless about our national life right now, so easy to wallow–individually and collectively–in the sanctimony of victimhood, that there’s nothing naive about feeling grateful for a movie made by and for adults which sets out to remind people that power, even the most imperial power, is, in a democracy, rarely untouchable. And for those of us who prefer our entertainments snappy and wised up and cheerfully cynical, it’s nice to find one that locates that message in the actions of upstarts and wisecrackers who, for all the raspberries they blow at those in power, can’t disguise their reverence for the institutions that do their damnedest to keep us honest.

The Post, directed by Steven Spielberg