The Post Reminds Us of Why Professional Journalism Matters


THE POST (2017)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Fox Searchlight, 116 minutes, PG-13 (language, war scenes)

Once upon a time people who served the public felt a sense of civic responsibility. The Post tells a true story—the 1971 decision of The Washington Post to publish parts of The Pentagon Papers, even though the rival New York Times was under a legal desist order. Director Steven Spielberg spins the tale with enough dramatic tension and panache that his film compares favorably with All the President’s Men (1976) and Spotlight (2015).

We now live at a time in which "truth" is a moving target and many think that print journalism is archaic. The American press was not born in full disclosure mode and its devotion to public service has waxed and waned, but one hopes we've reached the nadir. The Post reminds us of how shifts for the better occur. Prior to the social upheaval of the Sixties, the post-World War II press was more constrained by social conventions that folded into an old-boys’ network that valued chumminess, full access, and gentlemen’s agreements. Edward R. Murrow was an outlier in his devotion to investigative reporting and exposing lies for public scrutiny. Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) ran a genteel paper when she assumed control of the Washington Post after her husband Phil—a philandering and moody alcoholic—committed suicide in 1963.

Katherine Meyer Graham had no qualifications to head a paper beyond her marriage license and wouldn’t have had even that if her husband lived long enough to leave her, as he planned. She was born into a wealthy family and we meet her in the role she knew best: as a socialite presiding over parties for Georgetown elites. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) was an old family friend. Similarly, her editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hawks), considered the Kennedys as close friends. The war raged in faraway Vietnam, but as late as early June 1971, the Post was fixated on a spat with the Nixon White House that threatened Meg Greenfield’s (Carrie Coon) coverage of Trisha Nixon’s wedding. Then, the shit the fan and The Post recovered its soul.

Staggered by a McNamara press conference on Vietnam he knew to be a tissue of lies, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a Rand Corporation analyst, photocopied reams of classified government documents that showed that presidents from Harry Truman through Lyndon Johnson deliberately misled the American public on all aspects about the Vietnam War—from why we went into battle to why we stayed, even though few policymakers thought we could win. Ellsberg leaked the papers to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan and Richard Nixon, busy constructing falsehoods of his own, took steps to quash further release of the documents as soon as Sheehan’s first story hit the Times’ front page.

The Post plays like a cloak-and-dagger film. Post reporter Ben Badikian (Bob Odenkirk) also knew Ellsberg, so what if he could get his hands on the documents while the Times was under injunction? Since most folks know the historical outcome, Spielberg wisely develops drama by dwelling on the decision-making process. Would you publish if you were Katharine Graham and your lawyers advised you not to, your board warned the paper might go under, and you stood to lose both family fortune and friends? Would you push for publishing were you Ben Bradlee and members of your staff could go to jail? If you were part of that staff, would you write those stories? For that matter, would you leak the papers if you were Ellsberg and potentially faced a capital treason trial? How many lies would it take to spur you to action?

Spielberg’s makes us fear potential losses that we intellectually know did not, in the end, occur. He is aided by fine ensemble acting. Streep has been nominated as Best Actress for her role as Graham. She’s very good, though objectively it’s not an Oscar-worthy performance. Hanks is the one who should have been nominated; he is superb as a man coming to grips with betrayal, star-struck naïveté, and his moral conscience. Rare for a Hollywood film, those in lesser roles are more than window dressings. In addition to those already mentioned, there are small but chewy parts for Michael Stuhlbarg, Sarah Paulson, and Alison Brie. And let’s also acknowledge that Streep centers the film, which is as it should be for a movie whose major subtheme centers on women slowly realizing the need to question the white-shirted old boys’ world of power and presumption. (Graham was the first female publisher and the first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 business.)

As for negatives, the John Williams soundtrack is overbearing on occasion. There is also some now obligatory creation of characters for the sole purpose of checking PC boxes. The biggest rap has come from the New York Times, which complains that the film exaggerates the importance of the Washington Post. That’s both true and petty. The Times has been too protective of its turf to appreciate audience reactions. There was cheering in the theater during the reading of a Supreme Court decision that declared that journalists “serve the governed, not the government.” There was also applause in parts in which admonitions against tyranny were thinly veiled Nixon-as-Trump allusions.

If you’re one of those people who thinks newspapers are dinosaurs and that social media and independent “citizen journalists” can do what a team of trained news reporters can do, watch this film and think again. Pay close attention to the film’s coda. Muse some more over the delicious irony of a Fox franchise reminding us of the importance of a free press that’s more than a podium for bombastic ranters.

Rob Weir

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