In Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017), Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) – the publisher-baron of The Washington Post – defies the instincts of the male, conservative boardroom and leans in. At the climax, she allows Editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) to publish the Pentagon Papers, bypassing her legal counsel and the Nixon government’s ban on spreading this trove of confidential material that detailled the ‘truth’ behind the Vietnam War.
Hanks relishes the role of bleeding-heart, liberal crusader. ‘If you publish these documents then The Washington Post will cease to exist!’ his lawyers plead. ‘If the government can determine what we can or cannot publish then The Washington Post has already ceased to exist!’ he replies. When an intern asks if the task he has just been set – sneaking into The New York Times’ office to find out what they know – is legal, Hanks chimes, ‘What do you think it is we do here?’ ‘The Washington Post fearlessly pursues the truth!’, is left unsaid. The film is as self-satisfied as its characters. This is Spielberg on autopilot, cruising on the fumes of ideology.
But he is rarely a completely toothless film-maker. (Think back to the feminist-conceptual-art scene of discombobulating domestic appliances in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) for proof of a transgressive director.) And there is a moment in The Post when you think Spielberg has found his bite. Bradlee and Katharine tussle for editorial control over their newspaper; he wants to publish the leaked documents while she demurs. At one point he chastises her for dallying in social circles that put her too close to power; a subplot follows her friendship with Nixon’s Defence Secretary Robert McNamara. But she then strikes back, ‘And what about your friendship with JFK? ... I don’t think he would have kept you that close if you hadn’t pulled a few punches…’
So there we are: both the conservative publisher and liberal Editor-in-chief are so ensconced in the upper-class that neither is able to maintain the critical distance necessary for independent journalism. This window of light closes after a few minutes. Bradlee recounts a moving anecdote about meeting Jackie Kennedy in hospital, moments after ‘Jack’s’ assassination, her dress still matted in blood. Katharine quivers. The implication is that his friendship with the suave, handsome President (who, he fails to mention, first invaded Vietnam) was meaningful: not a function of power but a genuine relationship. How dare she imply that liberals and conservatives are two sides of the same coin!