Film & Television

The Post: A Powerful Woman and the Power of the Press

In daring to publish the Pentagon Papers, The Washington Post’s Katharine Graham demonstrated great inner strength and character, as in the old saying, “A woman is like a teabag—you don’t know how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

Steven Spielberg’s new film, The Post, depicts The Washington Post’s 1971 effort  to publish what was known as “The Pentagon Papers.” There was already an injunction against The New York Times for having printed part of these top-secret documents, which revealed lies the U.S. government had been telling for decades about our involvement in Vietnam. Now The Post was considering publishing the rest.

To do so would involve considerable risk, especially to the paper’s untested new publisher, Katharine Graham. She inherited this position after her husband, Phil, killed himself. Mrs. Graham’s father, Eugene Meyer, had bought the paper in the 1930s and had left his son-in-law in charge when he died. Though Katharine was well educated and sharp, to put a woman in charge of a newspaper just wasn’t something that happened in those days.

But now “Kay,” as she was known, was at the helm. Known as a brilliant hostess, she had close ties to many in the upper echelons of the government, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had commissioned the study described in the documents. Publishing them meant doing considerable harm to her old friend.

The film shows Kay as inexperienced and insecure in her new position, relying on her all-male board of advisors to guide her. Also playing a major role in her work life was Benjamin Bradlee, the crusty executive editor, who usually had editorial control. Because of the legal risks involved, however, the decision to publish (or not) the Pentagon Papers required input from all sources. But the ultimate decision (and risk, legal and financial) rested on Kay Graham’s shoulders.

As played by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, the two leads brilliantly show the struggle that went on behind the scenes. Streep is especially good (as usual, but also extremely well cast here) as a woman that had always been rich and pampered, but who displays great inner strength and character, as in the old saying, “A woman is like a teabag—you don’t know how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” Though there are a few too many shots of Streep entering rooms where she is the only woman, the film tries to underscore how unusual and thus lonely her position was. Not only was she viewed with suspicion because of her gender; some of her advisors actively try to overpower her because of it.

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  • Jane Wehner January 22, 2018 at 9:08 am

    Looking forward to reading more. Thanks!

  • Dr. Pat January 11, 2018 at 10:50 am

    Brava, Dr. Ford.
    Wonderful review and thoughtful insights as always.
    Dr. Pat