In 1971, the USA was at war in Vietnam. It was not going well. The American people didn’t know quite how bad the situation was, because the government had, for decades, been lying about the true reasons for sending thousands to die in a battle they knew they would never win. Steven Spielberg’s brisk, thrilling film is the story of how the truth came to light, thanks to one whistleblower and two newspapers risking jail for a story that needed to be told.
Meryl Streep is Kay Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, which is struggling. The paper’s editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), comes to Graham with the Pentagon Papers, the leaked documents detailing the government’s entire secret history with the war, insisting they report them. The New York Times, a far bigger paper, has already been legally blocked from reporting them. Running the papers could land Graham in jail and sink her family business.
As much as it’s a story of journalistic heroism, this is a story of a woman claiming her power. Graham, who was thrust into the position of publisher following the deaths of her father, the paper’s founder, and her husband, his successor. She’s ignored in board meetings of loud men who haven’t done half the research she has. She’s bullied by men who work for her. In one exquisitely planned shot, Graham heads into an important meeting, passing through a group of women (we presume assistants) standing outside a closed door, on the other side of which are men making the decisions. Graham’s every day is lone march into that room.
Streep gives one of her finest performances in years as Graham. She’s at her best when paired with a director as skilled as she is, who asks for finer strokes than the great broad daubs she uses in films like The Iron Lady or Florence Foster Jenkins. She’s quiet and riveting. The entire film is quiet and riveting. It’s perhaps been shut out of award season because it’s not screaming for attention. It’s the work of extremely skilled people confident in their own abilities, with nothing to prove. It’s first-class storytelling about first-class reporters.