With all the anti-media bias coming from the White House these days, a film like The Post could not be more timely. Governments keeping non-essential secrets and blatantly lying to the public is, and must be, fair game for all journalists and journalistic organizations. One would have thought that those lessons, so hard-won more than forty years ago, would still resonate today — but apparently not. So well-intentioned and well-made films like Fair Game (2010), Spotlight (2015) and now The Post serve as reminders for the public service that great journalism provides.
Steven Spielberg’s film chronicles how the Washington Post (hence, the title) in 1971 published multiple excerpts of “the Pentagon Papers,” a commissioned study which demonstrated that U. S. reports telling the world that the war was being won were manifestly untrue. That the reasons for being involved in the war were actually far different than what was being told to the public. That the U. S. was involved in plotting and executing a coup of the South Vietnamese leadership in 1963, and had been involved in Vietnam’s internal politics for years. And on and on. The Post‘s leadership has a couple of days to decide whether to publish or not, even as the White House threatens reprisals.
The odd thing about all this is that it was The New York Times that originally broke “the Pentagon Papers” story, and which first felt the effects of the administration’s disapproval. The Washington Post followed a few days later, and joined the Times
The answer to that is no. Spielberg focuses on the Washington Post not because they were first (they were not) but because they had so much to lose. At the time the Post was still considered a local paper, not a powerful national news organization, like the Times. It was the only paper with a female owner, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), and it was about to issue public shares for the first time the week that this story broke. The confluence of all these events — as well as the precursive elements to the Watergate scandal a few years later — is why this is the story being told from the Post‘s perspective. And yet . . . it still seems odd somehow.
Spielberg focuses on the journalistic and publishing aspects, detailing how the reporters had to pull a story out of thousands of unnumbered pages of manuscript in a matter of hours, and the ramifications of publishing under threat of federal prosecution. The Supreme Court case is covered as well, but only cursorily — a whole other movie could have resulted from that legal battle. And there is no denying that a crusader-type mentality is present throughout, one which is definitely intended to sway the masses. It’s not exactly the essence of balanced reporting.
The Post is an invigorating movie, but its limitations prevent it from being a timeless classic. Meryl Streep is fabulous as always, and Tom Hanks is terrific as editor Ben Bradlee (a part for which Jason Robards won an Oscar in 1976). It is an intimate glimpse into a particular time and place when history was being made by the minute, with parallels to today which are impossible to ignore. But mainly because the story had already broken at the Times, this movie comes off like a day-old newspaper at least some of the time. ☆ ☆ ☆. 10 February 2018.