Sunday, 18 February 2018

Review: The Post

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Kay Graham in The Post
Many years ago I read Washington Post publisher Kay Graham's autobiography, Personal History. I didn't know much about her, but as one of the few women in power in the journalism business, it seemed like a must read.

She was hardly an aggressive powerhouse, instead pleased that her father, Eugene Meyer, had chosen her husband, Philip Graham to take over the Washington Post. However her world fell apart when Philip Graham committed suicide in 1963.

She details her career as The Post publisher
Kay Graham took over and did the smart thing -- hiring people smarter than her. She worked with Ben Bradlee and their major break was publishing the Pentagon Papers that was the inspiration for The Post, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

At first The New York Times was ahead of the game, revealing the American government knew the war in Vietnam was a massive loss of lives, but that it would rather do that than admit going to war there was a mistake.

Then US President Richard Nixon got an injunction to stop The Times from publishing further, which gave The Post the chance to do further coverage.

During the film we see Graham as the only woman in the room full of bankers to discuss a public offering, and at first deferring to Frederick Beebe, the company's lawyer who later became chairman of the board. A character called Arthur Parsons who is a member of the board is fictional, but represents the opinion of many that a woman should not be running a paper.

Graham begins to realize, while the women's movement is happening, that she is the boss, and it is Bradlee's wife Tony, who points out how courageous Graham is to decide to publish the Pentagon Papers.

Publishing the Pentagon Papers was her hardest decision
There is a subtle scene of vindication when she walks out of the Supreme Court and there are women lining the steps as she walks down, admiring her. It's also nice to see one of the top Post journalists was Meg Greenfield, who wrote editorials, but was part of the Pentagon Papers team.

There were also witty remarks here and there, but just barely enough humour to get through the film.

Nevertheless, we also liked the scenes of watching the reporters using rotary phones, using pencils and furiously typing on old school typewriters -- how did the news ever get out like that? They typed the stories out that were then sent to the sub editor who edited them with a pencil.

The story was then sent to be typeset with blocks of words put together into paragraphs. What painstaking work! Once that was put together the presses would run. The film also showed dozens of people putting the paper together, bundling it and distributing it.

Nowadays it's all done on the computer, cutting out many laborious steps as well as staff needed, though newspapers still need reporters to provide stories for the paper. Printing has become more automated and accurate with computers so that there is better printing quality.

Old school newsrooms -- an army of reporters and typewriters
But imagine being in the newsroom at the time when this story was breaking -- that feeling is still important today -- that reporters are to serve the governed, not the governors.

Bradlee's feisty character is how movies like to portray chief editors and for the most part we'd like to think they are -- they set the tone and energy of the paper and employees. The way the reporters were dressed at the time is also pretty accurate -- they were hardly fashion plates and still aren't (except for those covering fashion).

So The Post has a pretty good feel of how people looked and acted at the time, a contrast between high society and scrappy reporters who are determined to tell the truth.

And yes -- Graham really was interrupted during a party when she was asked to make the call whether to publish or not.

The film didn't tug at the heart strings as much as Spotlight, but The Post reiterates the importance of a free press, and that women should not be underestimated.

The Post
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks
116 minutes

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