This American political drama tells the story, based on fact, of how the Vietnam war, which began under the administration of President Truman, was misrepresented to the American people over three decades by four Presidents. The film was chosen by the National Board of Review as the best film of 2017, and received six nominations at the 75th Golden Globe Awards.
The focus of the film is on the newspaper reporting of both The New York Times, and The Washington Post, especially the latter newspaper (“The Post”), and their fight to uphold and sustain the freedom of the press. The film also pointedly depicts the rivalry between them.
Back from the War itself, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) gains access by stealth to classified reports on the progress of the Vietnam War, and he leaks the documents to reporters at The New York Times, which begins to publish their contents. The Washington Post, aware that The New York Times is beating it to a sensational expose about the war – and the political duplicity that the documents reveal – is anxious to get access to the documents in whatever way it can.
The core of the movie is about the conflicts newspapers can experience surrounding the issue of the freedom of the press, the threat to national security through exposing secret documents that come by stealth into newspaper hands, and the press’s obligation to inform the public under their mission to serve.
Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) is the face of management for The Washington Post, and her Chief Editor is Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Katherine has inherited her position, but her ability has led her to be the first female publisher of a major American newspaper. After years of being “advised” by members of her Board on matters relating to her authority, she finds herself faced with the conflict of publishing sensational material that has been placed unexpectedly in her hands, or taking their advice not to do that. She gives the order to her Editor to go ahead, and she and her Editor face the likelihood of imprisonment, if she is wrong. The US Government advises “The Post” not to print, and when it comes out, its revelations gain the support of the press around the country, and the Supreme court rules in the paper’s favour.
Streep delivers a finely balanced performance as Katherine Graham. Her acting has quiet strength as she brings her character to the crucial decision, but the powerhouse of acting belongs to Tom Hanks as he nervously tries to steer The Washington Post to do what he thinks it should do. In a subdued way Streep gives credence to the conflicts newspaper publishers can experience, but Hanks illustrates them strikingly with compelling nervous energy.
The film has great relevance to political events occurring in the USA where Donald Trump is now publicly warring with both The New York Times, and The Washington Post, accusing them of fake news reporting. Steven Spielberg makes the relevance of his film implicit – but obvious still – by directing the movie with an eye for the fine detail of newspaper reporting, and the social context of the world of newspaper journalists. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post currently describe Donald Trump as a President who reliably confuses valid and fake news, and impulsively and personally believes the truth of whatever he is saying. He is a very different kind of President to the four Presidents described in the movie, but the film powerfully advocates the absolute necessity for appropriate moral conduct of whoever is the person politically in charge.
This is essentially an engrossing movie about newspaper freedom and it openly and obviously celebrates the principle of press freedom. The Washington Post made a historical decision to publish highly sensitive material under female direction, and the movie is also a quiet tribute to female empowerment under Spielberg’s controlled, intelligent direction.
Peter W. Sheehan is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting | Uploaded by: Fr Richard Healey