Spielbergs new film, telling the story of a female newspaper boss battling political corruption, gives the media a heroic face again in the age of Trump
Meryl Streep steps nimbly between two worlds in Steven Spielbergs tense new film The Post, set in the Washington of the 1970s. Dressed in a businesslike twinset, she must handle a male-dominated newspaper boardroom, then by night become the consummate society hostess, marshalling guests and domestic staff around her elegant home in a couture kaftan.
Streep plays Katharine Kay Graham, the rich, real-life widow who was handed control of the Washington Post after the death of her publisher father and the suicide of her husband.
Spielbergs film, out in Britain on 19January, shows Graham finding her feet in the treacherous world of political journalism, but is also a stirring anthem for press freedom. Grahams decision to print extracts from the top secret Pentagon Papers about Vietnam, leaked by defence analyst Daniel Ellsberg in 1971, initially put the financial future of the Post in jeopardy, yet marked a turning point in attitudes to government. We are not a little local paper any more, declares gleeful editor Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, once the presses finally roll.
Although its rival, the New York Times had, in truth, broken the story, the Post weighed in quickly, at some risk, and was later to lead the pack with its coverage of Watergate, courtesy of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
While Streeps character is at the centre of the plot, much of the drama takes place in the newsroom. So ThePost is soon to join a fine tradition of compelling newspaper films: a line of cinematic hits setting out either to celebrate the reporters honourable role in a democracy, or revel in the dirty tricks of the trade. And sometimes to do both. Much like the police, reporters are widely distrusted in the real world, but they do make handy screen protagonists. The Hollywood ideal has to be the cynical reporter played by Clark Gable, on the trail of his celebrity story in Frank Capras charming It Happened One Night (1934). Serious romantic competition could come only from Gregory Pecks reporter in pursuit of his truanting princess in Roman Holiday (1953).
But a newspapermans hunt for a story has also given shape to plenty of murky thrillers, whether based on fact, like The Post and, most notably, All the Presidents Men (1976), or based on nothing more than imaginative neurosis, like the acclaimed British outing, Defence of the Realm. This dark 1986 film, which starred Gabriel Byrne as an investigative reporter, compared well with All the Presidents Men for the leading American critic Roger Ebert, but was a bleaker, more pessimistic movie.