A number of questions ran through my mind as I watched Steven Spielberg’s exceptionally well-made (no surprise there), celebration of the first amendment. But all of those questions can be reduced to this one: Why?
The “Post” of the title is the Washington Post, and the heroic moment the film celebrates is its publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 in defiance of Nixon’s White House. It is a well-known story. Katherine Graham, who took over the publication of the paper after her husband’s death, made the decision to print it, and Ben Bradlee – the editor who would soon become even more famous from the Watergate scandal – provided the support, and backbone, to convince her to do it. Spielberg’s serious commitment to the project is shown by his getting Meryl Streep to play Graham and Tom Hanks to play Bradlee.
But why now? Unlike “All The President’s Men”, which was based on a big best-seller at the time, the public has not now, or ever, shown an overwhelming interest in the story, and the major players are only vague names from the past. But Spielberg, using an original screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, must have felt there was an audience for it today.
It opens in wartime Vietnam, where some Americans are killed in ambush. But it then flashes to Robert McNamara, played by Bruce Greenwood, flying home from a visit to the war zone, who asks his aide, Daniel Ellsberg, for his opinion on whether we’re winning the war. Ellsberg, gloomily played by Matthew Rhys, says the recent troop increase made no difference. At a news conference, however, McNamara does a total flip, claiming that victory is closer.
This sets the tone early: the government can be expected to lie, and the public needs someone to tell them the truth.
Two separate dramatic threads are then introduced. In the first, the rivalry between WAPO and the New York Times drives Bradlee to find out what secret scoop the Times is preparing, which turns out to be an early leak of the Pentagon Papers by a disgruntled Ellsberg. The rivalry is due to the precarious and competitive nature of the journalism business, which forces Graham to promise cost reductions to investors in order to save the paper. Bradlee, however, doesn’t give a damn about the cost. He just wants the scoop, and thinks it’s a betrayal of journalism’s duty to the public to hold back. After the Times breaks the story first, the Post scrambles until it gets its own copy of the papers from Ellsberg. This is all fairly diverting, thanks mostly to Hanks – who is given the film’s best lines – and to Bob Odenkirk, as Ben Bagdikian, who struggles appealingly, and successfully, to convince former colleague Ellsberg to give the Post its own copy of the papers.
The second thread is Graham’s own reluctance to publish the papers because of her close friendship with Robert McNamara. Streep has the heavy load to carry on this one, but the script lets her down. Outraged when she learns about the papers, she confronts McNamara at his home. How can he send boys to be killed over there when he knew the cause was lost? At this point, McNamara seems vaguely apologetic, but still convinced that their friendship will protect him. But then Graham says that he’s not going to like what she says next. Pause. I’m waiting, because it’s the only time in the movie so far – and, as it turns out, ever – that any raw, personally painful emotion will be exposed. But nothing happens. Oh, she says something or other, but I forget what it was.
While there is a third dramatic theme, one which, in fact, seems to take up more film time than the other two, it’s the one that pays off least. In fact, it basically takes over the narrative after the Post gets its own copy of the papers from Ellsberg, in effect killing whatever momentum the film had in the first place. This is whether the Post will even survive as a paper at all because the court can effectively shut it down for violating the Espionage Act. There’s a lot of half-baked legal banter about whether the Times is more at risk, or the Post, or both, and also about protecting Ellsberg, yadayadayada…but it’s about as cinematically fluid as lentil soup. Even worse are the globs of sentiment about Graham’s queasiness over the possible destruction of the paper, which had been entrusted to her after her husband’s death.
Spielberg stirs all of this in with clunks of the same story we’re all familiar with, pageant-like, with John Williams’ score cueing us for the applause. The climax, of course, is the pronouncement of the supremacy of the first amendment by the black-robed nine, leading to a silhouette of Nixon, at the White House, fulminating foully on the telephone.
So, when it’s over, what are we left with? What do we take away that justifies a dramatization of this dry material? In two words, Tom Hanks and, frankly, that should be enough. Sure, it’s basically a “there’s no crying in journalism” performance, but that’s OK. We love it so. Admit it: Hanks could play Lincoln, in a funny beard, knocking heads together to get the thirteenth amendment, and we’d just eat it up.
Which leaves us, finally, with the initial questions: why? And why now? But the answer is obvious. The Trump administration has openly declared that the established media is his personal enemy, that it is engaged in “FAKE NEWS”, and that the country can expect an open debate on the limits and legitimacy of the first amendment protection of the press. That’s why. It seems clear that, whatever Spielberg thought about the intrinsic appeal of this stale piece of history, its real audience will be those who, like him, feel that Trump’s attacks need to be responded to, vigorously, in order to demonstrate a mass public support for independent journalism.