As James Brown once hollered, “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”. Pale, male and stale to be more precise. And the woman who unexpectedly finds herself at the heart of it following her husband’s suicide, The Washington Post owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), knows her place.
“Catherine, keep your finger out of my eye,” instructs the newspaper’s gravel-voiced editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) after she raises the thorny issue of losing female readers.
“Well, I think that’s our cue ladies,” suggests the host of a dinner party before ushering her female guests into a side room to talk fashion and furniture while the men are left to chew cigars and cut deals.
“Fritz, you’re not going to let her do it, you can’t,” warns condescending board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) to Graham’s friend and adviser Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts) as she contemplates the moral dilemma at the heart of the film: to publish or not to publish?
The contentious material being the Pentagon Papers, top-secret documents spanning three decades of lies, cover-ups and misinformation about the United States government’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
The key findings of which are that a succession of Presidents, including Johnson and Kennedy, had been economical with the truth; elections had been rigged; covert operations had taken place; and, most startlingly of all, there had been a growing consensus from as far back as 1965 that the war was “unwinnable”.
The justification given by the pale, male and stale elite for continuing to send thousands of troops to an early, bloody and needless grave being what military analyst-turned-whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) called: 10 per cent to protect South Vietnam, 20 per cent to hold back Communism and 70 per cent to avoid the humiliation of defeat.
And it is the defeat of her failing newspaper, not to mention the threat of incarceration, which puts Graham on the back foot as she wrestles with the dilemma of whether to publish the damning information or not. Her rivals at The New York Times, who first broke the story, having previously incurred the wrath of Nixon and All The President’s Men by being issued with a court injunction.
The odds are high and the stakes are personal; but if she refuses to publish, she fails to hold the government to account, forfeits her constitutional right of a free press “to serve the governed, not the governors” and in effect sanctions press censorship. As Ben Bradlee says after receiving news of the scoop, “My God, the fun!”
And my god, what fun! Streep, Hanks and the supporting cast of A-listers are at the top of their game. Particularly Streep, whose quivering voice and forced smiles capture her character’s defiance and doubt as she tries to hold her own in the smoky boardrooms of pale, male and stale-dom. Hank, by contrast, guttural and punchy, more streetwise than everyman.
The screenplay by Liz Hannah and the Oscar-winning co-writer of Spotlight Josh Singer is dense and dramatic, laced with wonderful one-liners such as Bradlee’s withering critique of an unhurried hack: “What if we pretend you’re a reporter and not a novelist?” Spielberg’s direction is as brisk as the rattling printing presses which he so obviously adores.
And the parallels with Trump, who once described the press as the “enemy of the American people” and last week launched his “Fake News Awards”, are blindingly obvious. As is the casual sexism and deep-seated misogyny faced by bold and courageous women like Kay Graham who dare to stride in the corridors of power.
Hence her quote from Samuel Johnson that: “A woman preaching is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It’s not done well and you’re surprised to see it done at all.” “That’s the way it was,” she sighed. And though it remains the way for many, movements such as #MeToo will hopefully make it the way for none.