No, The Post is also about Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the former publisher of The Washington Post and the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Though it has all the crackling energy and wit of many a ’70s political thriller (with an unusually mobile, roving camera for a Spielberg drama), the movie boils down to a single stately moment, one in which a woman asserts her authority in a way that even her male subordinates, who technically report to her, are unprepared for. Graham was certainly not the only notable figure in the Pentagon Papers saga. But in 2017, she feels like a fitting protagonist, particularly after an election where the very idea of female leadership was a polarizing topic.
The dramatic lynchpin of Hannah’s script comes from a surprising coincidence described in Graham’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize–winning autobiography Personal History—that the Washington Post Company was in the process of going public the week that the executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) got his hands on the Pentagon Papers and began working on a front-page story about them, disobeying instructions from Nixon’s Justice Department. As the film’s final act begins, Graham is ushered out of a D.C. society party she’s hosting to take a call with Bradlee, her trusted adviser Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), and the disapproving board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford). The question in front of them: Should the Post publish, at the risk of being held in contempt of court?
Bradlee is, of course, vociferously arguing in the affirmative, as Parsons (a composite character, representing many members of the company’s board) urges prudence. Beebe hovers in the background; we’ve witnessed, in earlier scenes, how Graham relies on him to be heard in the all-male boardrooms she has to navigate, and often defers to his advice. In her autobiography, Graham talked about how few female role models she had in the business world and how timid she was when she initially took charge of the Post in 1963, after her husband Philip’s shocking death by suicide. Parsons and Beebe are both fearful that publishing the papers will cause the company’s initial public offering to fall apart. Bradlee doesn’t care.
“The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish,” Bradlee cries, adding that if they bend to Nixon’s demands, the paper’s reputation will be ruined. “Fritz, is Fritz there? Fritz, are you on?” Graham asks, her voice cracking. “What do you think I should do?” Beebe is his usual gregarious self, saying he understands where Bradlee is coming from, but his advice is clear: Don’t publish. The camera slowly pans in on Graham, this icon of D.C. civility, clad in a magnificent white and gold caftan, as she blinks nervously and gives her final order. “Let’s go, let’s do it. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. Let’s publish.” Spielberg then immediately cuts to a crane shot, arcing above Graham, as she hangs up with satisfied certitude. In that moment—framed in a near heavenly manner—she’s become a part of history. Her decision is something the film has spent an hour building toward, dramatizing Graham’s nervy debates with Bradlee, with Beebe, and with her lawyers over the necessity of standing up to Nixon. But once she makes her choice, it’s ironclad.