“Democracy Dies in Darkness.” This phrase was written by U.S. appeals court judge Damon J. Keith and used by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in reference to his reporting on the Watergate scandal. Today, it serves as the Post’s slogan as well as the theme for Steven Spielberg’s new movie “The Post,” which tells the story of one of the paper’s most pivotal moments in history.
Set in 1971, the film focuses on Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Her Royal Highness, Meryl Streep) and Editor-in-Chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) who obtain the Pentagon Papers and publish them in order to expose the truth about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War — a decision made after a court injunction halted the New York Times from publishing them.
Spielberg’s film wonderfully displays the bravery of the Post’s decision to publish the documents, revealing the brutality of the Vietnam War. The leaker, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), narrates portions of the Papers in the opening scenes of the film.
Throughout the film, I was consistently reminded of the pressures journalists were under during the Nixon administration. Characters such as Bradlee, Ellsberg and reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) often mention the legal ramifications and dangers of their reporting, and Spielberg chooses to play portions of Nixon’s phone conversations, in which he smears the reporting of the Washington Post and the New York Times.
It’s evident throughout that Spielberg’s goal was to show the importance of a free press, not just in 1971 but also in 2018. I got the sense through the vagueness and tone of voice in which each character said “Nixon” that the name could have easily been replaced with “Trump.”
As I watched Ellsberg tell Bagdikian that they could go to jail for publishing the papers, or Graham hesitate before giving the go-ahead to publish, I was able to understand the pressures they faced. When I left the theater, I wondered if the same pressure was felt by journalist Ronan Farrow when he published his article in the New Yorker, investigating sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, or by author Michael Wolff when he released his book about the Trump administration, “Fire and Fury.”
While Spielberg accomplishes his goals of sending a message about the need for a free press, he fails to show the complexity of characters such as Graham and Bradlee. Graham is portrayed as a timid and inexperienced publisher throughout the first half of the film, yet after she has a breakthrough while publishing the papers, she becomes powerful and dominating.
While it is inspiring to watch Graham’s transition, it feels inaccurate. By the time the Washington Post had published the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Graham had been the publisher for almost a decade. While she could be shy at times she was always strong and powerful.
The lack of character complexity could also be said for the Bradlee’s portrayal. Throughout the first half of the film, Bradlee is a hulking and dominating brute, but when his wife Tony (Sarah Paulson) gives him a speech on the bravery of women like Graham he has his own breakthrough. After this, he becomes more of a leader and begins to show compassion to those around him.
What the film’s writing lacks in character complexity, Hanks and Streep make up for with their acting. They give phenomenal performances, which audiences have come to expect from the Academy Award winners.
Despite setbacks in the portrayal of its main characters, “The Post” does a wonderful job of demonstrating the need for a free press to unmask the issues of society and hold the powerful accountable. As shown throughout the film, if the press was not able to do its duty to the American public, then American democracy would die.