Defiance Defines Democracy: The Post and the Structures of Power

An early scene in Steven Spielberg’s The Post finds a man hurridly photocopying confidential government documents. The man places each piece of paper onto the copier and scans it, the machine’s light illuminating each sentence, each word, each letter like the language itself is somehow generating the beam. He reads excerpts from the documents as Spielberg overlays selected words on the screen. It’s a moment that’ll be etched into history as firmly as Spielberg is etching it into celluloid. Later, another man stands in another office. The camera lingers outside, peering through the window as the man issues demands over the phone, jabbing his finger to the air or onto his desk with every diktat. One of these men is a criminal. One is not. One is a hero. One is not. One is whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. One is the President of the United States. Perhaps the most rebellious movie of Spielberg’s career, The Post casts a critical eye over power and works to dismantle the structures that give rise to it by suggesting that civil disobedience is the only way to maintain a functioning democracy.

Announced in March 2017 and put out on limited release just before Christmas of the same year, The Post was made at lightening-quick speed, and the urgency shows. The film thrums to the sound of clacking typewriter keys and rushing feet frantically making their way across office carpet. It emerges not so much as a simple historical drama (though Spielberg, aided by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s smart and sensitive script, nails the character beats), but a rapid-fire historical thriller. Each scene exudes significance, and each moment feels like history could be turned by the slightest shift in its outcome as Spielberg employs some of the tricks he learned on the likes of Jaws and Jurassic Park to inject the movie with maximum tension. In one remarkable shot, during what stands out as the film’s most electrifying scene, the camera lingers over a room waiting for a decision to be made. A simple yes or no echoes with the power of the Ark of the Covenant as the eyes of history almost literally watch on.

Yet The Post doesn’t focus on prominent people enjoying their moment of historical significance; Spielberg, who revels in celebrating the Mr. Everyday Regular Fella, doesn’t approach his films like that. Instead, it’s about underdogs fighting to find their voice: fighting against themselves, fighting against the government and fighting against the expectations society places upon them. Katherine Graham (played by Meryl Streep with a quiet vulnerability that never crosses into weakness) may have plenty of Washington connections, but she’s dismissed by most of them, seen as nothing more than an effective hostess who knows how to throw a good party. When she’s around the boardroom table, her opinion counts as much as that of the chair she’s sitting on. Her Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks having tremendous fun with an irrepressible character) has connections too, as well as an indomitable spirit, but he’s downplayed as well. A “pirate” overseeing what’s viewed as nothing more than a local newspaper struggling to get by, he’s a bit of a joke whose hustle amounts to self-delusion.

Spielberg visualises their struggle by focusing on buildings and the way Graham and Bradlee occupy them. The Post is a film of opulent structures that stand tall and imposing. An early scene sees Bradlee walk into the Post’s offices; the name of the paper dominates the screen with every bit of the pride and purpose of its editor. Later, we visit the home of Robert MacNamara, the US Secretary of State and the man who the early Pentagon Papers revelations revolve around. His bright white decor conveys a figure whose pristine reputation stands at odds with the dubious morality of his actions. These spaces act as extensions of the characters, and it’s little surprise that in the early stages of the film, Spielberg gives Bradlee prominence at The Post’s offices, the metallic gray-blues of the place reflected in his shirt and trousers. This is his world, a man’s world, and Graham’s just living in it.

She’s much more comfortable at home, even if Spielberg makes it clear that she doesn’t really belong there. At a dinner party early on in the film, the conversation turns to politics, and so the women leave the table to go into the living room. They sit on the sofas, but Kay lingers, perching on the back of one of the chairs: a part of the conversation, but still clearly distant from it. Later, when Bradlee visits to discuss his pursuit of the Papers, he and Graham discuss their next steps while her daughter and grand-daughters play in the background. Again, Spielberg is showing us a woman split between two worlds: part of the domestic environment, but still apart from it. Finally, in a remarkable use of the partition between two rooms, Spielberg highlights her growing ability to manage these sides of her life. In one room, the dining table is being prepared for another party, while in the other, Kay discusses business. The Post has been described as a film about “the week Kay Graham became Kay Graham“, and moments like these show her slow, steady ascent.

If buildings reflect Graham’s progress, men symbolise the barriers that stop her. Among many other things, The Post is about language and communication, with Spielberg taking great joy in showing the paper’s typesetting and even spending a luxurious 3 minutes and 14 seconds on a one-shot of Graham and Bradlee talking over breakfast (to my count, it’s the longest oner of his career). Words are power and communication can change the world, but Graham has precious little opportunity to engage with them. The men who dominate the Post’s newsroom, boardroom and every party she throws refuse to give her the opportunity to speak, and Spielberg frames them like immovable pillars, trapping her and blocking her way. A quietly devastating sequence finds two board members freely discussing their lack of faith in her, knowing full well that she’s in the adjoining room, able to hear every word. She enters the room, and Spielberg positions her in the centre of her frame, flanked on either side by the men. They may as well be made of stone.

The power dynamic changes in two key sequences where Graham is ambushed. The first is a phone call, during which she has to make the fateful decision: should the Post publish or not? Coming in the middle of a party, the scene finds Graham utterly unprepared for her spot in history, but she refuses to buckle, even when Spielberg’s direction piles on the pressure. Rapid cuts, claustrophobic framing and an incredible overhead shot that lingers above Graham like the eyes of history conspire to put her on the spot.

Wisely, Spielberg and Streep have the emotional honesty to allow Graham’s vulnerability to show as her hands shake and voice breaks. She decides, and repeats the decision over and over again, reminding herself that it’s the right option and giving the audience time to recover from the tension. Spielberg has directed dinosaurs attacking children, killer sharks bearing down on sinking boats and aliens invading family homes, but this may be the most breathlessly exciting sequence of his career.

The second key scene comes when Graham has to do it all over again. The paper’s lawyers discover that the Post’s source is very likely the same as the one the New York Times used for its coverage, and that puts the paper in the line of fire. To publish now will mean that the Post is in contempt of court, and in a moment that references Norman Rockwell’s painting ‘The Jury’, Graham finds herself surrounded by men who are trying to force a decision out of her. Again, the men come to resemble structures, their grey and black suits suggesting pillars that trap her. But Spielberg goes further than gender politics. By drawing from the Rockwell painting, he’s doing exactly what he did with ‘Triple Self-Portrait’ in Bridge of Spies: commenting on America. This is the United States, then and now: power is wielded not to produce equality, but to control and coerce. The only way to make the system is to break it.

And that’s exactly what Graham does. Again favouring publication, she turns the tide on the men in the room and focuses, in particular, on her core tormentor, Bradley Whitford’s Arthur Parsons, who had spoken so patronisingly about her earlier in the film. Turning to him when he dares to question her decision, she not only throws his position on the Post’s board into doubt, but reminds him that it is her board, that she is in control. Underlining the power dynamics still further and once again playing with images of men and pillars, Spielberg later shows Graham in the Post’s offices. She walks by a pillar on which a photo of her father, the paper’s former owner, is hung. A swish of the camera dispatches it quickly, as we turn to Graham. She has stepped out her father’s shadow, indeed the shadow of all men, and become her own person. There are nerves still, but finally, she feels comfortable in the newsroom.

The film concludes with a couple of codas that find Spielberg on impressively impish form. The first has Graham and Bradlee walking through the presses. Victory sealed, a new team has been formed, and they move into the distance of the frame as Spielberg’s camera slowly pans up to reveal the room in its full enormity. Machines hum with life and carry copies of the latest edition of the Post up through the shot, shafts of light illuminating their progress. In a film that’s otherwise dominated by quiet intensity and tangible intimacy, it’s an epic moment that stands as possibly one of the most audacious of Spielberg’s career. But there’s real depth here too. Positioning the press as the veins of America and their freedom to publish the truth as the blood coursing through those veins, the shot is an act of defiance that reminds us to do all we can to keep the presses rolling. Our lives – literally – depend on it.

Finally, in the second coda, Spielberg shows us what can happen if we don’t protect the press as he cuts to a security guard discovering the break-in at the Watergate. While the moment is perhaps a little on-the-nose and could be perceived as Spielberg showing too much affection for All the President’s Men (which is The Post‘s biggest single influence), it has thematic significance too. Had Graham not made the decisions she made, had she not confronted seemingly insurmountable power, Nixon could have been emboldened and potentially survived Watergate. Graham not only defined her moment, she defined the moment immediately after it and the moment we’re in right now. Democracy dies in darkness, reads the motto of the modern day Washington Post, but with his Post, Spielberg goes further and is even more proactive. His rallying cry? Defiance defines democracy.

Learn More…

Find out more about the films mentioned in this essay by visiting From Director Steven Spielberg’s Filmography section. A list of the books and sources referenced can be seen below, alongside other recommended reading.