With all the buzz around Steven Spielberg’s high-budget, glossy adaptation of Ready Player One (which is slated to come out this spring), there’s been little left to go around for his all-star ensemble historical drama The Post (which hits theaters December 22). But as the newly released trailer reveals, it’s The Post that could make the most cultural impact at a moment when the press is facing an unusual amount of pressure.
The film is a newspaper drama that chronicles the Washington Post’s 1971 effort to publish the incendiary Pentagon Papers over the objections of the US government. It seems to have grown out of 2015 Best Picture winner Spotlight’s boost of procedural tales about investigative journalism done right, despite great odds — while also drawing on the recent popularity of stories about women overcoming historical workplace sexism. This time, it’s the story of one of the most powerful women in publishing history.
The true story behind the movie — involving government cover-ups and institutional sexism — should make for heady drama
The notorious documents that became known as the Pentagon Papers were a massive trove of leaked government communiqués that painted a deeply embarrassing picture of decades of US military meddling in Vietnam. The documents notably embroiled the New York Times and the Washington Post in a crucial standoff against the government; after the Nixon administration successfully filed an injunction against the Times, forcing the paper to stop publishing the reports, the Post had to grapple with the question of whether to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers where the Times had left off — potentially jeopardizing its future.
The drama over the Pentagon Papers at the Post was exacerbated by the then-recent ascension to publisher of Katharine Graham, daughter of the paper’s former publisher Eugene Meyer and wife of Meyer’s successor, Phil Graham. Katharine, who took over the role after her husband’s death, faced numerous obstacles as the first woman publisher of the Post — which she would later recount in detail in her Pulitzer-winning 1997 autobiography, Personal History.
It’s the story of Graham, whom Meryl Streep appears to be playing with a tremulous veneer over a steely resolve, that drives Spielberg’s film. Based on the trailer, The Post seems eager to remind us that Graham didn’t just have to fight overwhelming government pressure to back down from an incendiary but vital story; she had to overcome severe sexism in the bargain.
The Washington Post did opt to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers; not only did it manage to survive the government’s attack on its First Amendment freedoms, but it would go on to break the story of the Watergate scandal just a few years later. It accomplished both of these feats under the reign of Graham and executive editor Ben Bradlee, portrayed in The Post by a gruff but earnest Tom Hanks. But this background context only adds urgency to Spielberg’s film — a renewed awareness of how close the government, in its efforts to minimize freedom of the press, might have come to quashing news of the Watergate scandal altogether.
It is perhaps no coincidence, given the current political climate, that Spielberg has chosen to revisit the conflict between the government and the press that took place in the moment right before Watergate, which remains the pinnacle of journalism speaking truth to power. The story detailed in The Post may not be as famous as Watergate or the classic film about it, All the President’s Men, but fans of that movie, or of Spotlight, should be paying close attention.
The Post comes to theaters nationwide on December 22.