The Post: One Woman’s Journey of Self-Discovery

After a string of animation and action flicks with the boys, ‘The Post’ came as a rare excuse of a movie for us ‘grown-ups’ to catch-up on.

That it was a Steven Spielberg film featuring two of our all-time favourite actors made it an altogether irresistible proposition. Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, essay their roles to perfection as is their habit with any character they play.

While we anticipated a riveting story on the Pentagon Papers exposé, riveting as it was, we came away impressed at how Spielberg shone the light on the grace and inner strength of Katherine ‘Kay’ Graham’s character as the sheltered Heiress of The Washington Post, forced to take on the mantle of ‘Publisher’ due to tragic personal circumstances.

To me, the talented Streep’s rendering of the gentle and mild-mannered Katharine Graham in ‘The Post’ and her portrayal of Miranda Priestly, the suave, supremely confident, and unapologetically haughty fashion magazine Editor in the movie ‘Devil Wears Prada’, was a study in contrasts. Both work in the media and both wield power, albeit how they relate to power and choose to use it, differ vastly. Very few actors or actresses can convincingly pull-off playing two diametrically contrasting characters in a similar setting unless one happens to be Meryl Streep!

Image courtesy: Creative Commons

In this real-life incident set in the 1960s, Ben Bradlee, the maverick Editor and Kay Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post have their occasional differences on editorial policy, yet retain a healthy respect for each other. While Bradlee is bull-headed, he is no misogynist.

Ben Bradlee brooks no nonsense and has managed to get The Washington Post on the wrong side of the White House. The prime preoccupation of the editorial and reporting team in the first few scenes of the movie is trying to figure out ways and means of getting a scoop on the President’s daughter’s wedding for which, they have no invitation!

Money is in short supply and Kay and her Board are moving towards a decision to go public in order to keep The Washington Post in business. Spielberg deftly uses the scene of the Board meeting to set the tone for the weighty issues that the movie goes-on to tackle in later scenes.

Kay enters a Boardroom full of grim, dark-suited middle-aged and old men, all waiting for her arrival. The self-important men make no bones of their disdain for a mere woman who they see as undeserving of holding the position of Publisher.

Kay’s opinions are perfunctorily ignored and she is frequently talked over. The same views are acknowledged when they are mouthed by a male Board member, not an uncommon occurrence even in modern day Boardrooms or living rooms! She is coerced and nudged to consider giving-up control of The Washington Post so as to inspire confidence in institutional investors who may otherwise hesitate to conduct business with, or invest in a woman-led establishment.

In the end, Kay, as the first woman publisher in a male-dominated, chauvinistic corporate America of the 1960s, reaches deep within her reserves to make the toughest call for any publisher, to publish reports from the Pentagon Papers, secret documents detailing US-Vietnam relations that are leaked to The Post.

The Pentagon Papers document the United States Government’s deceit and lies to the American public across three decades and four Presidents in keeping-up a pointless war in Vietnam. In the guise of reigning-in the spread of communism, the American government has been sending thousands of young American soldiers to their death just to avoid international embarrassment.

The New York Times has already been slapped an injunction by the United States Justice Department for having published the first report on the leaked Pentagon Papers. The Washington Post has just made its announcement to go public, and the timing of the exposé weighs down heavily on Kay. She risks putting-off the investing banks if she decides to report on explosive Government secrets.

With the lawyers and Board members trying to get her to see ‘sense’ in keeping the story under wraps, and Ben Bradlee straining at the editorial reins to go forth with the story, Kay faces the daunting prospect of taking-on the mighty White-House, the possibility of serving prison time and risking her freedom, and worst of all, the prospect of having to close-down The Washington Post, her family’s legacy.

Kay chooses integrity over profitability when she issues the order, “Let’s Go, Let’s publish”, leaving the Board members exasperated, and Ben Bradlee and his team jubilant. Dissenting Board members get a taste of her steely resolve when she tells them off stating she is the boss and if anybody has a problem accepting that, they have no business being on her Board!

In the days and weeks that follow, other Newspapers too publish the documents. The Supreme Court dismisses the Justice Department’s injunctions restraining the Newspapers from publishing the documents, and upholds freedom of the press observing that the media is duty-bound to serve the governed and not the Government.

Kay and other Newspaper Chiefs walk out of the courtroom and reporters mill around the men for their comments on the ruling. The unassuming Kay brushes-aside her colleague’s suggestion to speak to the media and walks out amidst a throng of admiring women-folk. Citizens pour onto the streets and intensify the anti-war stir. The movie ends.

Katharine Graham eventually went on to steer The Washington Post through the Watergate scandal exposé that brought down the Nixon Government.

So women out there, people who underestimate your worth have no business being on your Board. I say march ahead and leave behind the detractors and naysayers to sort themselves.