This post contains spoilers.
Last week I saw The Post, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. In the movie, Streep and Hanks play publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham and editor Ben Bradlee, respectively, of the newspaper The Washington Post.
The movie showcases how The Washington Post decided to publish the Pentagon Papers – which detailed how several American presidents had known that the U.S. would lose the Vietnam War and lied about it – even though the Nixon administration had barred another paper (The New York Times) from publishing that information.
It’s a movie about the power of the press, the opaqueness of the government – and, most notably, the individuals that go behind momentous decisions.
The big decision in this movie goes to Graham (Streep) – a woman who inherited a family publishing business, dominated mostly by men, from her husband.
That business, she remarks a few times in the movie, has been a lot of her life, and she personally has a lot to lose – finances, some of her friends from the Nixon administration – if she decides to publish. The alternative, however, is the government isn’t held accountable for its actions. By providing information to the public, the press helps protect the American people.
In a scene lasting only a few minutes, Streep shows how Kay made the decision that would significantly shift the relationship between the government and the press. Here are some of the reasons why a character like Kay matters now, in this day and age.
She stands strong even when she’s in a tough situation
As shown in the movie, Graham was a housewife before her husband died. She inherited a publishing business that she didn’t want to lead and that she didn’t really have experience leading.
It was also a male-dominated industry at that time: Looking back at the movie, I only remember one female reporter, possibly a couple more, and a few housewives. The rest of the folks—the reporters/editors, scientists, businessmen—were male.
There’s a pointed scene where a businessman asks a couple of questions that involved mental math. Kay immediately responds, but she’s ignored and the guy beside her gets all the credit.
Bradlee (Hanks) seems to listen to her, but it wasn’t clear to me (at least, for the beginning of the movie) whether that was because she was his boss.
Despite her situation, Graham continues as the publisher of The Washington Post, attending meetings and making the big decisions with some input from some of her advisors. In the movie, for example, The Washington Post has just gone public, which would be a great help, financially speaking, for the publishing company even though it trades some of the family’s stock.
So even before deciding to publish the Pentagon Papers, Graham had already been in a pretty tough situation. It was just that the Pentagon Papers cemented her place in history.
She sticks to her convictions in the face of adversity
A related thread to the above point is that Graham sticks to her convictions – prioritizing what she believes is right even though she may compromise her business, relationships, and reputation.
At the heart of the controversy is Bob McNamara, the secretary of defense who commissioned the Pentagon Papers in the first place, aiming to release the papers in the public in the future so it could be read with perspective. He’s also a trusted advisor and friend of Graham’s. By publishing, she would compromise her relationship with him and possibly his reputation as well.
But in a powerful scene, she tells him that she’s not asking for his permission to publish the papers, but rather his advice. And despite him reminding her that the government has already barred The New York Times for publishing, she thinks of all the people who’ve been needlessly killed by what was ultimately a fruitless war.
She tells him pointedly that he let her son go off to war despite knowing the Americans were losing.
The most striking part to me was that Graham wasn’t really portrayed as someone with a strong personality, a person who vocalizes her beliefs loud and clear. Her strength came from showing she was honest, and authentic, and vulnerable—a kind and quiet person who asserted herself at the right times.
In that memorable scene, Streep looks scared about the future. But even though she’s scared, she ultimately does what she thinks is right. It gives hope and inspiration to all the folks out there who think they need to be a certain way to be a leader.
She shows the power of individuals
For me, the government has always been a nebulous entity. I don’t really know what’s going on about anything for better or for worse.
The press, however, is an institution that’s always been made of individuals. Reporter’s names are showcased at the top of every article, so even though you could like a paper, you could disagree with that particular individual.
As the leader of that bunch of individuals who wield quite a bit of power over the American public, Graham shows that a single person can stand up to an incredibly large, always somewhat mystifying entity that is the government.
Yet though she made the main decision herself, she’s not alone. First her editors and reporters support her. And I’m not sure about the history but in the movie, at least, the decision of The Washington Post to publish was followed by many other newspapers.
It even led to a Supreme Court decision that greatly increased the power of the press, so that it held the government accountable for its actions.
I hope we’ll be seeing more characters like Graham in the near future. She’s kind but assertive, and left a lasting impression in the history of the United States.
The Post is now out in theaters.
Image credits: DreamWorks Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Participant Media, Pascal Pictures, Star Thrower Entertainment