Steven Spielberg’s award-winning 2017 movie The Post starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks found its way to India this month, and – as is unfortunately the case with many important movies – was greeted with half-empty cinema halls. But the few of us that did show up were keenly moved.
Movies are personal – they touch nerves that we otherwise ignore and uncover memories we buried long ago. The Post kept me up later at night for many reasons – mostly because Streep’s performance left me ‘woke’. These are the scenes that replayed in my head over and over again.
Katharine trips over a chair while heading to meet Ben: Streep’s character, media mogul Katharine Graham, may be the owner of The Washington Post, but she had only taken on the mantle at the age of 45 after her husband’s suicide. Her body language reveals a matronly demeanour, and captures the sense of insecurity and imposter syndrome that plagues a woman who is suddenly thrust into a man’s domain. She’s meeting her employee, the paper’s editor Ben Bradlee, but he is brusque and dominating with her – almost as if the roles were reversed. The woman, even if hierarchically senior, is personally inferior in both their eyes.
She forgets her lines at the board meeting: The movie repeatedly shows Katharine fixing her clothing before meeting important people – a key giveaway to her self-consciousness, and a reminder that the wealthy homemaker is now a reluctant wielder of great economic and corporate power. Every time she enters a boardroom – which is always full of men – she appears breathless and distracted. When numbers are demanded by the head of the board, she mumbles them hesitantly – letting the men around her take the credit for voicing them out loud. When she is required to defend her company’s figures, she is tongue-tied, and lets her ally, the paper’s chief corporate officer, do the talking instead. Katharine’s speechlessness is evocative, symbolic of a woman’s role in American society of the time – to be seen and not heard.
Her historic decision: With damp eyes and quivering hands, Katharine gives the ‘go-ahead’ on the phone to Ben to publish the Pentagon Papers. But, later, when Ben’s wife makes him realize how much is at stake for her – unlike for him – and when he learns they could go to jail for contempt of court, he goes to meet her at home in a contrite and apologetic mood. She is still in her evening gown from her birthday party. With keen clarity that is at odds with her earlier blustering persona, she checks the legal points with Ben. Then, defending her decision to publish, she stands up to a senior associate – reminding him that she owns the company now, it’s no longer her father’s or her husband’s. (The women in the audience broke out into applause at this point.) It’s her breakthrough moment – deeply etched on the viewer’s memory.
The way the men view Katharine: The film traces a careful evolution of not just Katharine’s own personality and behaviour, but also the way the men around her view her. From curt and irreverent earlier on, Ben is a complete convert at the end, looking at her with admiring eyes and deep respect. Her right-hand man Fritz – who actually dissuades her from publishing the Papers – turns around and takes her side when she goes against his advice. The owner of the New York Times treats her condescendingly at social events but later, gravely if grudgingly, accepts her vital role in supporting his paper’s stance. By standing up to (and by) the men in her life, Katharine wins them over.
She is knocked about in the newsroom: This scene left me perplexed for a long time. After making her big decision, Katharine walks through the Washington Post newsroom and watches the commotion as the paper goes to press. No one seems to notice her presence, someone even knocks into her as they rush by, and she appears a bit dazed. I wondered if the scene was meant to show the lack of female presence in the newspaper office, and also how the owner, by virtue of being a woman, isn’t taken seriously. But it also shows the madness of a bunch of dedicated reporters, Katharine’s commitment to her employees, and her love for the work they do. It is a nuanced, unforgettable scene, painted in shades of grey rather than black or white.
The film is more than a cinematic statement on press freedom and responsibility. Its moments of inner and outer empowerment make it a must-watch for women viewers in India, many of whom would relate to Katharine’s journey forty years ago.
The lesson is clear: Men aren’t going to hand out equality voluntarily. But before women battle it out on the field with men, they must first defeat the enemy of low self-esteem and negative self-talk in their own heads. Once they do that, everything else falls in line. Even the men.