But the movie, depicting the drama surrounding The Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, will also resonate in the #MeToo movement.
The plot may be a prelude to Watergate and “All the President’s Men,” but the movie is centered on publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), a leader with few if any counterparts of her gender, deciding to put it all on the line and side with her editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), in his push to print the papers.
At a screening of the movie at the Newseum on Thursday, there were cheers at a key moment in the movie when Graham makes her decision, telling her executives and Bradlee, “Let’s publish.”
Earlier on Thursday, Streep appeared at an event at the Post along with Spielberg, Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, and Bradley Whitford, and told moderator Ann Hornaday that she thinks the current reckoning with sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace will lead to a backlash.
“I see it leading straight to a backlash, and then a reckoning with that, and out of that will come something really good,” she said at the Post event. “But I don’t think we move in an easy progress trajectory towards and enlightened future. I think we go two steps forward and one back, and I think we are going to hit the wall on this one soon. But I really do think that young people read the events of these recent days differently than older people, and that’s the hope.”
In depicting history, the movie highlights the lack of diversity in leadership then, and naturally will trigger talk of the slow progress ever since. In one scene in the movie, Graham walks past a sea of female secretaries into a room of all male bankers and executives as The Washington Post Co. prepares to go public.
“What about the rank and file of this country?” he asked. “If these women, these courageous women, are coming forward and unburdening themselves of 40, 50 years of truth that they have been withholding … if it filters down to Main Street and gets people, men, and women to various degrees, questioning their own values and have they behaved in any way, shape, or form like those that are in the news right now, when that starts to filter out like a rock in a pool of water, that is when we are going to see some real movement.”
Among those at the Newseum premiere were Warren Buffett, Barry Diller, Bradlee’s widow Sally Quinn, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chris Wallace, Wolf Blitzer, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Post owner Jeff Bezos, Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron, Don Graham, Lally Weymouth, and Shelby Coffey. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the papers to the Times and later the Post, was there with his family and stood up to applause as Spielberg introduced him as “the man who gave us the plot of this movie.”
Spielberg said “it means more than I can describe” to bring the movie to “the hometown of the two giants, Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee.”
He said the movie had two “institutional” protagonists, the Times and the Post.
“This is a story about competition, but it is also about cooperation,” he said.
The movie is a 21st Century Fox release produced by Amblin, DreamWorks, Participant Media, and Pascal Pictures.