Director: Steven Spielberg. Starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks. Length: 116 minutes.
Not long after our marriage, exploring historic parts of Boston, my husband and I were stopped on the steps of the capitol by a female journalist. No doubt because she heard an Aussie accent, she wanted to know our large views about Watergate.
Since the Pentagon Papers assembled by the then much maligned Daniel Ellsberg had not been seen or digested by governance experts, we did not have sensible “views”. Neither did any of our friends at Harvard, where my spouse was still a PhD student. Like everyone our age whom we knew well, we were against the Vietnam War. But the litany of lies purveyed about the progress of this conflict by four American Presidents—Truman, Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson—had not yet been exposed.
Because events in Vietnam were of such concern to American intellectuals, I have not forgotten either this chance meeting with the journalist or the names of prominent White House figures linked with the conduct of a war that could not be won: Haldeman, McNamara, Kissinger, Bradlee, Nixon. The release of Steven Spielberg’s highly praised movie about this era in American life, The Post, was therefore of enormous interest to me. School classmates of mine were in senior military positions during this war. One was a Brigadier General.
So far, I have seen this brilliant film twice. Not surprisingly, in view of the passage of time, it has taught me much more about what actually went on during the tumultuous period in which it is set than any of us who were not in Southeast Asia knew then. Without the Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham, who decided against the advice of some of her closest and most esteemed colleagues to publish material considered deeply threatening to America and to herself, we might still be in the dark about essential features of this historical era.
In the first moments of the movie we witness shots of American soldiers ambushed in the Vietnamese rain. Soon afterwards pages of confidential Defence Department documents about this war are given to Mrs Graham in altered form, omitting all references to secrecy, to protect whistle blowers. She shares these documents with people of influence whose subsequent “moves” are depicted in riveting detail. Most of these colleagues are men. Her husband Philip, portrayed as brilliant, is no longer alive; but although we are told by her that he committed suicide, details about his mental imbalance and alleged “accidental” death are not provided.
We do see Mrs Graham with her four children, and it’s obvious that she is as deeply attached to them as she was to her late husband. But if we want to know more, we have to read Wikipedia and other current Net sources that provide key facts missing from the movie. Among the most important are the dates of the deaths of the two major characters: Kay Graham at the age of 84 (2001) and her closest colleague Ben Bradlee, a good friend of the Kennedy family (2014). Also essential is the information that at age 45, when she lost her husband, Mrs Graham had not had any adult work experience outside the home.
In the film itself we witness many relatively formal occasions, especially dinners, at which Mrs Graham acquires vital information about events subsequently linked with Watergate. Brilliantly played by Meryl Streep, this highly intelligent woman keeps a lot to herself even though much candour is required in her relations with senior colleagues. The Washington Post, in competition with the New York Times, faces imminent collapse because of dwindling sales. Her love for this newspaper, and her dedication to service to her country, are under perpetual threat. Clearly her first job is to save the paper. In this context her slogan that “quality” engenders “profitability” is key.
The continuing threat to the Post’s continuing existence propels the movie’s plot in engaging ways even if some of us, alive at the time, know what eventually happened to the Nixon White House. Richard Nixon, of course, continued with a vengeance the 30-year presidential practice of withholding from the public everything vital about the Vietnam war’s failures. At the time many Americans long involved in civic life knew what was what. But what to do so that key truths about the war would come to light without humiliating the U.S., endangering ordinary military personnel, and minimising American influence in the world was far from clear.
In view of our present interest in real and “fake” news, the story’s pertinence to the present is almost eerie. At bottom the issue dramatized by the movie is freedom of the press. When top journalists know that if they speak up publicly as writers they could lose, not just their jobs, but everything that their families depend on every day, intense audience interest is commanded. For those of us who know how hard it sometimes is to be truthful and prudent at the same time, demanding circumstances are as trying and unpredictable as Spielberg shows them to be. Safety propelled by fear always beckons.
At times during this movie, suffering great tension, I whispered to my movie companion, “Good on you, Mrs Graham!” Extraordinary courage was demanded of this woman. With consummate ease she could have succumbed to the temptation, not just to postpone for several days the publication of what came to be called Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers, but to forestall indefinitely their public release. On numerous occasions we see her interrupted at home when she is in her dressing gown, waiting to get to bed, to read vital material, or to grab a meal. Of focal interest is her relationship with Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). He himself arrives at her home, uninvited, at more than one tough moment.
Quick one-liners abound. Since my mother was glued to the McCarthy hearings, and since I sometimes joined her in watching them on t.v., I was forcibly struck by a reference to Nixon’s “friend” Senator Joseph McCarthy that could easily have been missed, or not understood, by contemporary movie goers.
Virtually every American in my life knew that McCarthy’s involvement in the House Unamerican Activities Committee threatened informed dissent, but fewer people understood that Mr Nixon would be a more virulent opponent of free speech than the Senator was. That this president barred everyone at the Washington Post from setting foot in the White House once the Pentagon Papers were made public, I did not know until I saw this movie.
Of course Mrs Graham’s view of necessity was not supported by all of her closest advisors. Two men whose judgment she valued were more concerned about what the banks would do if she permitted Daniel Ellsberg’s work to be “out” in the public square than what it would mean for America to silence sound critics of Washington’s military plans and practices.
The moral of this tale, of course, is unmistakable. Bravery like Katharine Graham’s is as rare as it is inspirational.
Dr Susan Reibel Moore, a graduate of Oberlin, Harvard, and the University of Sydney, has spent most of her adult life in Australia. She is the grandmother of five children ranging in age from 21 to 3.