20th Ct. Fox (2017) 116 min. PG-13
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Liz Hannah & Josh Singer
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski; Editing: Sarah Broshar & Michael Kahn; Production Design: Rick Carter; Art Decoration: Kim Jennings & Deborah Jensen; Set Decoration: Rena DeAngelo; Costumes: Ann Roth; Score: John Williams
Stars: Meryl Streep (Katharine Graham), Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee), Sarah Paulson (Tony Bradlee), Bob Odenkirk (Ben Bagdikian), Tracy Letts (Fritz Beebe), Bradley Whitford (Arthur Parsons), Bruce Greenwood (Robert McNamara), Matthew Rhys (Daniel Ellsberg), Carrie Coon (Meg Greenfield), Jesse Plemons (Roger Clark), Jessie Mueller (Judith Martin), Michael Stuhlbarg (Abe Rosenthal)
Some movies are so timely they seem to have their finger on the political pulse of the republic. Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool was like that back in the ‘60s, The Conversation in the ‘70s, Wag the Dog in the ‘90s. But I’m surprised to be discussing Steven Spielberg, who has become one of the screen’s most reserved classicists of late, in the same breath with these other films. Irradiated by some Industrial Light & Magic effect, he seems to have hologrammed into the prescient screen prophet of our times, a clear-sighted Nostradamus, predicting Russiagate several years before the fact with his Bridge of Spies. That movie may have seemed a tad musty at the time of release, a Cold War artifact, but little did we know.
In retrospect it seems Spielberg was gazing directly into a crystal ball, given the accuracy with which he foresaw the current zeitgeist come to pass. With primaries right around the corner despite no safeguards having been put in place to insure outside influences can’t continue meddling in our elections, it seems fitting for the director to now be looking back to a still raging Russiagate’s original namesake with The Post, his latest polemic on the principles of our democracy. Something of a Watergate era time capsule itself, the movie concerns an extraordinary moment in history – the decision of Washington Post managing editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) to follow the lead of The New York Times in printing the leaked Pentagon Papers, and the resulting court case when suit was brought against them by the government, on the pretext of having exposed classified military secrets. This early ‘70s scandal shook the country to its ethical core, setting the stage for the subsequent Watergate cloudburst, and Nixon’s resignation to avoid articles of impeachment. The more things change…
The Post takes us back to the days before the explosion in mass media and the attendant 24 hour news cycle, when people still waited breathlessly for the morning edition to hit the pavement, the only means of keeping abreast of the latest developments. While we chortle with fond condescension over the snail mail pace news ended up on the stands back then, the shaky, handheld camerawork used in the bustling Post newsrooms creates a docudrama feel, piquing our interest in how papers were printed in the days before desktop publishing virtually killed off the art form.
It’s fascinating to observe the time and labor that went into each issue, meticulously typeset and pieced together like a steel engraved jigsaw puzzle, column by column, before it could roll hot off the press. The entire building shakes and quakes under the pulsating power of the enormous printing presses, and the final product is stacked, batched, loaded and delivered by convoy trucks deployed to bombard the city with saturation coverage. The Post appreciatively preserves this proud process that seems to be less and less relevant with each passing year, being carelessly tossed in the garbage like yesterday’s paper.
Though a commemoration of all news print, The Post shines its special spotlight on the birth of The Washington Post in particular, highlighting how it first came into its own as a major player in the newspaper game, with national influence and circulation, playing a vital role in seeing through the battle begun by The New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers. And by extension, this same Washington Post, being stationed right there on location in the hub of the nation’s capital, is meant to be commended for having continued to fight the good fight.
Doing so much to call out graft and vice where it sees it, even after all these years the paper remains committed to shining a piercing light into the darkest corners of Washington politics, fearlessly exposing corruption, publishing news that makes a difference. As the paper’s slogan states, “Democracy dies in darkness.” Investigative journalism hasn’t been this feted since the similarly themed, Oscar-winning Spotlight a couple years back, which certainly must be gratifying given the current climate.
Show business, with its sensationalized relationship with publicity, has been exploited by the tabloid press and attendant paparazzi since inception. So it’s interesting to observe how eagerly Hollywood has flown to the defense of the Fourth Estate here. When Washington picks a fight with Tinseltown, I guess this is the inevitable result. It’s long been apparent that, with few exceptions, Hollywood is reticent about openly taking far left political stances onscreen, already standing historically suspect in the eyes of the country’s conservative pundits for promoting a ‘liberal agenda,’ a charge that came to a head during the McCarthy era witch hunts.
Like the predominantly Jewish producers of Hollywood’s golden age, the industry has always been inclined to keep its private beliefs under wraps to project a more mainstream, family friendly image, its product well-scrubbed of any possible controversy in order to market movies to the widest cross-section of film goers imaginable. Which makes even moderately daring, middle-of-the-road propaganda like The Post, conventional as it may seem artistically, stand out all the more starkly for having something to say about the current world situation, something which needs to be said by an industry no longer cowed by the McCarthy era tactics of the bully pulpit.
Spielberg’s express purpose with The Post is to champion the enterprising press, reminding us just how crucial crusading correspondents are in serving we, the people, and what an indispensable part they have played in the U.S. political past. News outlets are the only conduit guaranteeing that what transpires at the highest echelons filters down in print to the grassroots reader. Speaking truth to power, holding politicians and lawmakers to account, they’re our first line of defense against the corrosive influence of presidential overreach. We’re also reminded of the critical role much libeled leakers, like the movie’s Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), have played in exposing corrupt goings on behind closed doors, which could far too easily be swept under the rug, as were the statistical facts about Vietnam for so long. Woodward and Bernstein would have gotten nowhere for instance, without Deep Throat. So The Post is a cry of moral outrage that such whistleblowers have been shamelessly slandered and impugned of late by the current administration, libeled as ‘enemies of the people,’ made convenient scapegoats for the sheep-like masses to bay at. The media may have its failings, as Graham states in the film, “Oh well, we don’t always get it right, you know, were not always perfect,” but American journalism remains the best in the world. Meaning crooked politicians lack grounds to denounce news outlets unfavorable to them, surreptitiously distracting from the underhanded shell games actually taking place behind closed doors.
Nixon is being damned here not for Vietnam (he’s just continuing long-standing national policy), not even for Watergate (yet), but for cavalierly disregarding the First Amendment by attempting to regulate the power of the press. Spielberg eavesdrops on the enemy camp same way the Post’s all-purpose runner (Will Denton) does on the Times, offering dispatches from the frontline by soundscaping and looping in Nixon’s actual White House tape recordings. Considering all the similarities The Post points out between Vietnam and the Afghanistan War (going on two decades now, the silent majority having seemingly tuned out to it long ago, same as they did Vietnam in its final stages), and the recent ambush of U.S. soldiers in Niger, maybe the country wasn’t quite so ‘great,’ perhaps wasn’t even quite so different, in some nostalgically re-imagined yesteryear as wistful nativists like to imagine. The Post opens in the thick of it, about as far away as one could get from the bustling office spaces where such news was once relayed over the wires, as an ambushed platoon of soldiers are annihilated in the steaming jungles in a manner meant to startle us out of our complacency, same way the Normandy invasion did in Saving Private Ryan. It’s superficial shorthand to clue us in on the Vietnam conflict, despite the vaguely cloddish, Forrest Gump-like feel to the staging. Even with reinforcements, the alarming situation is not improving, the military having fought to a virtual stalemate against the guerrilla tactics of the entrenched Vietcong. It was a war America’s top brass knew years earlier couldn’t be won, stalwart former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Brian Greenwood) reveals, that we “knew we couldn’t win back in 1965, six years ago” but chose to keep fighting, the rationale being that by applying continual military pressure, Ho Chi Minh would be driven to the bargaining table. Nevertheless, Nixon’s White House is committed to perpetuating a false narrative to the American people and Congress in which superior technology and strategy is rewarded, military progress has exceeded expectations and measurable improvements have been made in every branch of the war effort.
As the purloined Pentagon Papers proved, this standing denial persisted throughout four separate administrations, including those of Kennedy and Johnson, serving to further mislead the public. “The way they lied,” an idealistic Bradlee preambles, “we have to be the check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable I mean, my God, who will?” With allusions like this, a clear parallel is intended to be drawn with the current White House administration, which throws out falsehoods and spins untruths at such a rapid rate, real time fact-checking has become essential just to keep them honest. As The Post proves, it’s only the checks and balances afforded by the press that prevents politicians from lying with impunity to the American people. When Kay asks McNamara how he could have misled her and all their friends for instance, he asserts, “It’s easy…” Simple lies travel faster than inconvenient truths. The screenplay by first time writer Liz Hannah was rewritten ten weeks before shooting began by veteran Josh Singer, whose earlier forays into the school of journalism included The Fifth Estate and Spotlight. It was likely Singer who added the more immediate and transparent allusions to current politics, peppering such parallels throughout proceedings. The script is almost too intelligent for its own good at times, becoming self-congratulatory in the way it verbally draws comparison between the office of the presidency, then and now. Occasionally, the attempt to transpose events of today onto yesterday feels too patently obvious, such as when Bradlee tells Graham that “We can’t have an administration dictating to us our coverage just because they don’t like what we print about them in our newspaper.” Hannah’s original version of the script had been percolating for a while, so such verbal barrages shouldn’t feel this slapdash; maybe Singer’s eleventh hour rewrite needed further galley proofing. Still, even these bluntly overt lines possess the biting immediacy they were intended to, sounding very clear echoes in history that ring with the zingy zest of current events. There’s choice dialogue here to chew on.
Hitting back after an unflattering article was published about him in The New York Times, the Nixon White House, like that of Trump, is said to be “nothing if not vindictive,” Katharine being warned that “The Richard Nixon I know will muster the full power of the presidency and if there’s a way to destroy your paper, by God he’ll find it.” To prove the point, when Post reporter Judith Martin (Jessie Mueller) is denied credentials to attend the wedding of Nixon’s second daughter due to her unfavorable coverage of the first, we’re given insight into when certain papers first began being blacklisted by the White House in an attempt to more tightly control news coverage, seeking to martial the national press corps into a propaganda arm – glorified, state-run media. Eventually, Nixon will despotically decree that all Washington Post reporters and photographers be permanently barred from the White House. We wouldn’t be surprised if they’d ended up on the FBI’s list of potential subversives compiled by Hoover at the Department of Justice. News organizations unfavorable to the presidential regime are put in the proverbial doghouse in an attempt to muzzle them, giving their sycophantic competitors, who can be assured of avoiding the tough questions in order to curry favor, unfair advantage. The thin veil between past and present is purposely blurred, with Bradlee pointing out that the current president “has taken a sh*t all over the First Amendment,” and the ubiquitous Henry Kissinger even being invoked, reminding us that Trump himself hosted Nixon’s former U.S. Secretary of State at the White House in the midst of the media’s most heated comparisons of the two, in order to flagrantly thumb his nose at the obvious similarities, and dare observers to do anything about it.
Familiar buzz words like ‘collusion’ float freely about, such as when Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) is grilled by the Post’s senior legal counsel Roger Clark (Jesse Plemons is back from Bridge of Spies), and refuses to divulge his sources, or confirm them to be the same as those used by The New York Times, though not doing so puts the paper in legal jeopardy for contempt of court. Statements such as “Why would other countries talk to us in confidence if secrets like this can be leaked… if the president can’t keep secrets, he can’t govern. Nothing less than the integrity of the presidency is at stake,” further serve to call to mind that the man now occupying the highest office in the land likewise failed to keep his own top secrets sealed when entertaining the Russian ambassador and foreign minister within the sanctity of the Oval Office, his lack of candor endangering the covert missions of America’s allies and undercover agents abroad. Nixon’s stark similarities to the current commander-in-chief become even more apparent when Walter Cronkite gathers Ellsberg’s opine that we “can’t afford to let the president run the country by himself… without the help of Congress. I was struck in fact by (the) President(’s) reaction to these revelations as close to treason, because it reflected to me the sense that what was damaging to the reputation of a particular administration, a particular individual, was in itself treason. Which is very close to saying ‘I am the State.’ But this is a self-governing country. The constitution provides for a separation of powers.” It’s a line of demarcation which our present Executive Branch is effectively seeking to obliterate, in order to concentrate complete control within the White House. All that’s really missing to make the analogy complete is for Tricky Dick to decry The Washington Post as ‘fake news’ in a last ditch effort to discredit its unfavorable coverage of him.
The Post is nothing if not timely, practically breaking news itself. Wanting the film to coincide with and comment upon current events, Spielberg, his do-gooder streak in overdrive, practically put a rush order on the job – expedited shipping. And though the paper thin political allegory is about as subtle as a Trump base rally, far too easy and predictable (he’s preaching to the choir), betraying the speed of manufacture, it couldn’t be more opportune – so of the moment that the sublime synchronicity justifies the haste of preparation. Glib and superficial in that slickly commercial fashion we’ve come to associate with the director, technically The Post is up to Spielberg’s usual high standard, professionally polished to a fine sheen. It’s been crafted with care, and zealously fused together by the director’s own sincere feeling for the subject matter and his deeply held beliefs concerning the spirit of democracy. His well-honed directorial talent almost manages to disguise the picture’s thematic shallowness and theatrical artifice. He’s drafted a film that wants to be politically subversive, despite being conceived artistically to appeal to the most conservative of tastes. Rebellion never seemed so square as these suits undermine governmental authority more thoroughly than those protesters spilling out into the streets. Given greater time and care, The Post could have really been developed into an insightful editorial on how America, back when she really was great, responded, with finer fiber and greater moral integrity to a similar constitutional crisis threatening her basic democratic values. In the film, Post reporter Bagdikian says he always wanted to be part of a small rebellion and Spielberg, in making this movie, clearly felt that he was being very subversive as well. The director may not have deserved an Oscar for his artistry, but he warranted a Purple Heart for his commendable intentions. Asking to be admired for his daring, he places himself in the same fine company as the Washington Post itself, a true profile in courage, which defiantly exposed the Pentagon Papers to the light of day rather than obediently burying its head in the sand. Having ascended in his career as the most commercially successful director of all time, to the same elevated pedestal as stars Hanks and Streep, regarded like Caesar’s wife as above reproach, a Spielberg impervious to backlash, rationally speaking, has as little as his Bradlee character to personally lose by putting out this timely critique. But one can still admire the chutzpah of such a move as we head into the second year of our own administration’s unflagging assault on the national press corps. He’s determinedly waded into the fray, putting out the political equivalent of an anti-war film in the midst of an ongoing war.
The question of whether audiences had grown so weary of the volatile politics currently dividing our country (in a way they really haven’t since the Vietnam time frame in which the picture is set) that they would shy away from absorbing even more poli sci at the box office, was answered by the movie’s respectable returns. Holiday audiences seemed perfectly willing to spend Christmas season wrestling with ethical issues concerning the First Amendment and freedom of the press during the time of year devoted to putting aside personal differences. As it heads onto Blu-ray every indication is that even the apolitical are enjoying this film’s satirical jabs, deriving amusement from how history seems to be repeating itself all over again like a film reel caught on a loop. Audiences usually find this sort of ideological cant far more persuasive when threaded more subtly into a movie’s larger cinematic context, but here the public swallowed its medicine in one direct dose, as spoon fed by Spielberg, without being watered down with the usual escapist sugar.
Like horror films, which become more popular in economically and socially uncertain times, perhaps living vicariously this way serves to exorcise demons. Movies like The Post assure viewers that it is, in fact, the fractured world that’s gone wrong, and not us, and that eventually things will right themselves. As Spielberg reassuringly shows, though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice. It remains to be seen if The Post will weather the years as well as timely wiretapping films made during the Watergate era itself, like Klute, The Conversation, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men. But what’s apparent is that instead of suffering ‘war’ fatigue, the paying public, many of whom have become more politically involved after observing their hard fought for civil liberties slowly being chipped away, are instinctively gravitating toward entertainment that reflect their own political interests, much as activists did during the counter culture. Though he’s been warming up to it for quite a while, The Post may be the most overtly political narrative Spielberg’s yet attempted.
Yet it’s ironic in its way that the newly politicized Spielberg has taken such a militant stance on this subject, considering that his own blockbusters released during the actual Watergate era were themselves dismissed by serious critics as being studiously apolitical and escapist. This led to the long standing perception of Spielberg as an emotionally arrested, artistic lightweight, an impression the director has spent the last thirty years turning out movies like The Post in an effort to dispel. Apparently he’s fallen for the critical hardline and believes that only by crafting films with weighty, uplifting and/or inspirational themes, will he ever be taken seriously as a mature artiste.
He’s chosen a tack opposite to most other filmmakers as they age and loosen up, rediscovering the fun in their art they were too serious to indulge in when still trying to prove themselves and establish their careers. Like actors who try to balance their portfolios between indies of integrity and splashy, big-budget blockbusters, Spielberg evenly divides his time, balancing his serious side with pop-art fancies, as he did when he released Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park the same year. Having undergone a lengthy post-production process, Ready Player One, his companion piece to The Post, was released at the end of March.
Despite aspirations to cultivate a more mature movie making image, Spielberg still paints his pictures in the same irrefutable moral absolutes as he used to, resolutely ignoring the political complexity of the wider world around him. Looking back, the social upheavals of the ‘60s and ‘70s may seem like a simpler time, but Spielberg reduces it still further, to caricatures of valiant heroism and florid villainy. For all the murky ethical issues his characters discuss, the comic strip milieu he places them against is one of virtuous high-mindedness, in which there is no question but that the publication of the Pentagon Papers was patriotic and not treasonous or mercenary.
He’s working within the certitude of historical hindsight, which precludes debate, making such contrived ethical quandaries far easier to resolve. We always know his heroes will fall on the side of righteousness, and that his villains must be foiled in order to warrant their dastardly designations. The way Spielberg conceives things, the tug of war between the liberal left and conservative right becomes a literal push and pull from one side of the screen to the other, as those in favor of publishing the Pentagon Papers debate the pros, buffaloing those opposed – legal aide Roger Clark and Anthony Essaye (Zack Woods) – across the room as they raise their objections.
The director even has indecisive bipartisan Kay stuck in the middle, caught between these oppositional forces during the phone call to determine if the Post will publish the purloined papers, whipping his camera from her left to right, with the dizzy woman understandably spinning like a top, the counterpoints raised by both parties pointing her in differing directions at once. This is a child’s eye view of political sparring, so it’s not surprising that Bradlee’s far more sensible little daughter (Austyn Johnson) takes full advantage of the situation, getting all the laughs by putting her entrepreneurial skills to work, raking in a tidy fortune from her small investment in a lemonade stand.
Perhaps it’s refreshing that, beneath it all, Spielberg has managed to escape the undue criticisms leveled at him so early in his career, remaining a kid at heart, retaining the faith of a child. When you’re this gifted so young, there should be no reason to try and conform to norms, deviating from the signature style that so distinguishes Spielberg’s best work, toward one considered more socially relevant. May as well advise a pop artist to become a Mexican muralist; no matter how good he is at simulating the form, it’s always going to seem an inferior, pale imitation next to his intrinsic artistic talent.
In his way, Spielberg is still making movies for kids, but now he’s become so darned pedantic about it, fashioning the professional equivalent of those educational films teachers used to bore their captive audiences with in school. Lifting another lesson from world history, as he had with Schindler’s List, Munich, Amistad, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies, Spielberg, like an elder statesman, is using cinema to advance and uphold American values, same as he had in less politically incendiary times, but what really differentiates this latest essay on the topic is its much more pointed modern spin.
The script, in its indirect way, speaks directly to our present state of affairs. Yet for all its immediacy, The Post is about newspaper publishing, hardly the sort of thing to set audiences on the edge of their seats. Even the seemingly requisite thrills of hunting down sources and scooping the competition, which could have given pace to this material as it did His Girl Friday, seem sorely missing. At least All the President’s Men included some furtive back alley meetings with shadowy figures that left viewers fearing for the leads’ safety.
By way of overcompensation, Spielberg attempts to keep us as off-balance as he did in Jaws and Jurassic Park, amping up viewers’ interest level, investing his court intrigue with a breathless and breakneck pace. With incongruously wracking editing by Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn, chalk full of hyperkinetic jump cuts, Spielberg approaches The Post much as he did his Munich, as a nail-biting, political suspense thriller. When Bagdikian knocks on the squirrely Dan Ellsberg’s door, having finally tracked down his old RAND buddy, the visuals recall the similar setup when the Times runner (Luke Slattery) disturbed Neil Sheehan (Justin Swain) and the small army of reporters he was marshaling to prepare his front page dispatch. Janusz Kaminski’s lighting patterns throw spook shadows across the Bates Motel room Ellsberg’s holed up in, littered with heaps of copied pages. With his twitchy nervous tics and shifty eyes, he appears to have devolved into a later day Unabomber, spinning what sound to be wild conspiracy theories (“Covert ops, guaranteed death, rigged elections, it’s all there … they violated the Geneva convention, they lied to Congress, and they lied to the public, they knew we couldn’t win and still sent boys to die.”), allegations that might give us pause if the Pentagon Papers didn’t bear them out. Spielberg is at more of a disadvantage here than he was in his earlier civics lessons, which were at least offset by some bona fide, action packed perks (the director’s forte), whether the mutiny in Amistad, the Civil War in Lincoln, or the cloak and dagger shenanigans of Bridge of Spies, which served to balance things out. The Post’s dramatic high point on the other hand involves a stationary, three-way phone conversation on which the fate of the entire nation seems to be hanging, and its climax on the kind of by-the-numbers courtroom trial that has become preordained for serious Spielberg films these days, judicial halls his preferred range of ground. All the ink spilled in the world would be hard pressed to quicken the blood given the glorified chamber drama the director’s working within. As he gets older Spielberg, who once saw the world as his stage, whether it be desert (Duel), ocean (Jaws) outer space (Close Encounters and E.T.), or the other side (Poltergeist), seems to be receding further and further indoors. He’ll be directing from the comfort of a rocking chair soon. Age comes to us all, but one would have hoped the cinema’s premier ‘70s whiz kid would’ve found a way to escape it. He tries to pump up the adrenaline in convoluted ways, such as having his competing messenger boys run parcel posts to the New York Times, and almost being mowed down by cars for their efforts, right in front of the imposing edifice. Spielberg depicts both these gophers, overeager to make good, with a vibrancy and initiative lacking in the adults. The one from the Post even takes advantage of the opportunity to indulge in some industrial espionage by eavesdropping in elevators and spying over the shoulders of busily chattering reporters. When he naively asks if it’s legal to snoop on what the competition is dishing about, Bradlee counters by asking what exactly he thinks reporters do for a living, letting us know he’ll have little compunction about further flaunting the law to publish his golden goose. Seeking to increase the tempo even more, we watch courier Bagdikian strap in the boxed papers in their own reserved seat especially for the occasion when transporting the precious cargo by plane, almost as if they were a political prisoner being escorted to safety. And The Post tries to pack in so much pertinent information concerning the world situation at the time, it verges on sensory overload.
Despite the hum of wood-paneled stillness pervading the picture, the director works overtime to keep this movie busier than The Greatest Showman’s three-ring circus. The movie at times feels like a kaleidoscope of famous, yammering busts, as estimable personages keep whizzing by to spout a lot of back and forth about ethics in publishing. Which is ashamed since isolated, individual performances are full of such richly colorful promise we keep wanting more from them, the film to catch its breath long enough to take stock of such rare and rarely accumulated talent. As Pulitzer prize-winning Post reporter Meg Greenfield, Carrie Coon cuts a striking figure, perhaps because the other reporters, with their wide ties and short sleeve button-downs, are depicted indistinguishably from one another. Effortlessly holding her own in a male dominated profession without asking for concessions, the sort of inferiority complex that so wracks Katharine is anathema to her.
She has one great monologue where she gets to relay the Supreme Court decision by phone but for some reason Spielberg preempts this big moment by allowing another reporter, Gene Patterson (John Rue), to burst in and spoil the reveal. And she’s dressed and made up to so closely resemble Jessie Mueller’s Judith Martin, it’s likely only the sharpest eyed viewers who will notice the parts are played by two completely different actresses. Tracy Letts’ interpretation of Fritz Beebe, Katharine’s chief adviser and right hand man, is so low-key as to be nearly invisible, but there’s much going on here. Fritz, even more than Bradlee really, proves the girder keeping Kay upright, swooping in to save her whenever she falters. And when he tells Arthur it’s Kay’s decision whether they can publish, despite his own advice against it, he beams with pride, like a proud papa bursting his buttons, when she displays the wherewithal to abandon her security blanket and follow her own instincts for the first time.
Walking with a hitch to his step as if he’d taken shrapnel to a leg, Bob Odenkirk, perhaps alone among The Post’s reporting staff, manages to make a real character out of Ben Bagdikian. Playing phone tag so his calls can’t be traced, Odenkirk has a couple of great scenes as he does battle with an imperious row of phone booths to patch through a call to Ellsberg. It’s a hysterical vaudeville number, patterned after the Dr. Strangelove scene where Peter Sellers couldn’t pool enough change to make a call to the president that would avert nuclear annihilation. But this choice bit isn’t developed properly or sustained satisfactorily, so after building up a head of steam, it’s permitted to just peter out. And given the frequency reporters like Bagdikian must resort to tortuous old rotary dials in this manner, the absence of cell phones is sorely felt.
Characters rattle off their lines in a rat-a-tat fashion that might have been timed to the clickety clack of typewriter keys, and the movie often employs overlapping dialogue in an unduly self-conscious way, such as when Katharine talks with her daughter Lally (Alison Brie) in the living room, or when a general assignment reporter (Michael Cyril Creighton) tries to describe the girl (Sasha Spielberg) who inexplicably left a few teasing pages from McNamara’s report on his desk. With seemingly no spare time to expend, they end up stepping all over each other’s lines. Upping the ante, the Post reporters are tasked with combing through, loosely organizing and speed reading all 4,000 unnumbered Pentagon pages by their publishing deadline in ten hours, the lemonade keeping them ginned up as they pull their all-nighter, scrambling like undergrads to sort through their illegally copied material with the same dedication we’d earlier seen Kay applying when hitting the books. Only Spielberg could ratchet up the running time into a race against the clock, as the Post tries to outdistance The New York Times to publish, rather than being bested again in their own backyard of political reporting. And a time element is introduced to keep us attuned to the rapidity with which events are unfolding, and their possible consequences, as we’re informed that with a catastrophic event like a criminal indictment for flouting presidential authority, the bankers could pull out, causing an insolvent Post to go under a mere seven days after ringing that Wall Street bell offering up market shares to the public.
As in Bridge of Spies, the well-meaning Spielberg has again fashioned a drama of contrasts with The Post. Trying to build bridges instead of borders with his previous period piece, weighing the comparative benefits of Soviet and U.S. relations, he crosscut between the incarceration of Francis Gary Powers by the Soviets and Rudolf Abel by the Americans. Rather than establishing it through scissors, the script of The Post sets up a similar dichotomy, comparing the constitutional crises and attacks on the freedom of the press during the Nixon administration with the same issues that have again cropped up to bedevil us under Trump’s, as if everything old were new again. According to the movie, there are things that happen in the world, warning signs that one must pay very close and careful attention to in order to assure that history doesn’t repeat itself, leading the world with its short term memory, back down dark and twisting paths already traveled.
Nixon’s direct assault on the First Amendment creates a clear and present danger, which is why Bradlee says he’d give anything to be embroiled in this mess, in the thick of battle, invested in fighting for the very freedoms our founding fathers ensured in the constitution when, speaking for apolitical viewers, Arthur (Bradley Whitford’s composite character serves as stock villain) says he’s glad the Post isn’t the embattled Times. And by extension, viewers are meant to be inspired rather than cowed that it’s now our turn, all these years later, to stay calm and carry on the precedent set by the Post and the Times in defending our inherent political rights, which is swiftly assuming the dimensions of a spiritual battle to preserve the very soul of the republic. With the country searching for clues from the past in these uncertain times to better determine exactly where things are headed in the future, The Post, like Spielberg’s Holocaust remembrance Schindler’s List, becomes the political equivalent of the concept ‘Never again.’
As august chief senior editor Ben Bradlee, the same character Jason Robards, Jr. won the supporting Oscar playing in All the President’s Men, Tom Hanks makes no attempt to be anything other than a more than usually erstwhile and assertive Tom Hanks. Keeping one eye cocked wide and the other squinting, like Popeye the Sailor Man, his profane, foul mouthed Bradlee is meant to be the champion of the little people – uncouth, street smart, just the type of scruffy street fighter his refined publisher needs to do her dirty work. Hank’s Bradlee is offensive to the civilized, well-heeled tweeds in Kay’s hidebound circle who whisper of him “She got rid of Al Friendly and brought in a pirate who does nothing but bleed our margins.” Yet as an actor Hanks is at a woeful disadvantage because his character has been given all the movie’s most egregiously self-serving broadsides to spout. Following Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal and Bridge of Spies, though, Hanks has become old hat at projecting the sort of earnest integrity Spielberg looks for in roles of this sort. Adding this latest portrait to his growing Congressional Gallery, he’s clear of eye and strong of purpose, aged in wood. The way the star has been being enshrined as the movies’ grand moral arbiter ever since Saving Private Ryan, he may be being cannily groomed for political office by Spielberg, the same way state attorney generals often are for congressional seats (only a philanthropic George Clooney could come close to unseating him). Hanks was even satirically advanced as Oprah’s vice president following her electrifying Golden Globes speech in January, which fired up rumors of a presidential bid.
And as campaign running mate there’s Meryl Streep, a dollar for dollar contributing match if ever there was one. She’s moussed back on her Margaret Thatcher bouffant to play Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and pretty much auditioned for this part with her own anti-Trump Globes speech last year while picking up the same Lifetime Achievement Award Oprah just received. Maybe such heady honors bring something out in people. Having managed to keep their private lives well-scrubbed of scandal in a way most real politicians can only dream of, the director was shrewd in casting Hollywood’s two most universally respected and well liked stars in his film.
Regardless of their personal politics, most audience members admire these big names enough to bear through their extended civics debates, rather than instantly tuning them out as a reflex. Carrying over their prestigious reputations, their presence confers an aura of instant gravitas to proceedings, snapping us to attention like a famous featured speaker at school commencement. These agreeable actors seem to have been made for each other, and spark off the most crackling chemistry we’ve observed all year.
Shockingly, the two had never before been cast in a film together, which actually isn’t so surprising when one considers just when their careers could have ever intersected. Back in the ‘80s, when Hanks was making movies like Bachelor Party and The ‘Burbs, Streep was winning Oscars for Sophie’s Choice and nominations for Out of Africa and A Cry in the Dark. When Hanks was starring opposite Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, Streep was still being Oscared for The Bridges of Madison County and One True Thing. Even when Hanks started winning Oscars himself, they still seemed to belong to different social strata of the Hollywood hierarchy.
But after a long, slow ascent, both now appear to be on an even playing field, possessing the legacy of a half century of movie going memories in their regal bearing. This is a once-in-a-lifetime dream pairing, and the privilege of seeing them work their magic is akin to watching Katharine Hepburn teamed in her sunset years with living legend Henry Fonda for the first and only time in On Golden Pond. For true movie lovers, it’s exciting just watching stars of this caliber interact on screen. They can even enliven dry-as-a-martini discussions about the legality of their paper’s actions in choosing to publish.
Finally returning to politics after The Manchurian Candidate and Lions for Lambs, Streep, familiar as she is to moviegoers, is still new enough to the Spielberg fold to impart some exciting shadings to her part, reminding us, as Elizabeth Banks drew much flack for attempting to do at the Women in Film Awards, how rare it is to find such a strongly written part for an actress in his films. She may be his first multi-dimensional leading lady since The Color Purple more than thirty years back. Certainly no others readily spring to mind. Just as the collaborative input of the black actresses in that film helped Spielberg shape the material, his clear regard, nigh reverence, for Streep’s talent shines through the bejeweled period frame he’s hewn to offset her.
The director’s embarrassingly schmaltzy sentimentality (the reason as many people hate his movies as love them) tends to border on a bit much however, when he has a gaggle of starry-eyed girls on the Supreme Court steps beaming with approval upon Streep’s Graham as though she’d suddenly sprouted wings. After all, this is Meryl Streep; worshipful girls already gaze upon her eminence as though she were wearing a halo. But it’s a nice echo of her earlier walk up the steps of the American Stock Exchange, bracketed by admiring women institutionally shut out of such inner sanctums themselves. Having ascended to the summit, she proves an inspiration for all those who will follow in her footsteps. Streep represents just what the director needs at this stage in life, and while he occasionally tends to go gushy in his eagerness to advance this more feminist perspective and lend his voice to the #MeToo movement, the majesty that is Meryl manages to soften out Spielberg’s raw edges.
Ably abetted I suspect by screenwriter Liz Hannah’s early insights, many culled directly from Graham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Personal History, the director also manages to draw something out in Streep’s art we haven’t seen before, an endearing hesitancy, uncertainty, a thorough sense of insecurity in her capabilities. This performance is full of surprising facets and colors never before struck with her versatile instrument. As a performer, Streep’s finally become secure enough in her own talent to stop trying to push it so hard, paring back some of that showy, self-consciously theatrical technique. She’s rediscovering the intuitive grace of simplicity in her own craft, in a way the director would do well to study. The actress has become so self-assured as a performer by this point, that she has no qualms playing a character completely lacking in self-confidence for all her grand lady airs.
Indeed, I’m not certain if we’ve ever seen Hollywood’s most consistently acclaimed actress playing a woman this unsure of herself. So much so that when she offers a uniquely distaff perspective on the direction of her paper, advising editor Bradlee he’s losing female readership in the news style section, and he advises her to stop pressuring him despite being his publisher and his boss, she instead demurs to his authoritative demeanor, rather than asserting her position and putting him in his place. And we’re not sure if we’re supposed to admire him for speaking his mind rather than being cowed by her clout, or lump him in with all the other suits who are shown to treat her just as dismissively, a woman of no substance or spine despite her owning the majority of stock in the company.
Waking with a start to her living nightmare after staying up late studying the facts and figures of running a paper and memorizing the Post’s mission statement, scrawling down scrupulous notes like a studious, over prepared schoolgirl (Fritz coming to her rescue with “I used to be the only one who brought my homework to class.”), Graham’s so cowed in the moment, like a deer in the headlights when facing down an intimidating panel of all-male senior board members, she can’t utter a peep. Choking when she should speak up, she can’t even raise any of the salient points she’d so carefully annotated concerning the long standing tradition of maintaining high standards in publishing. Her inability to find her voice in such instances is meant to be indicative of women’s wider lack of a say at the time in the world around them. Shaky hands nervously fiddling with her Mr. Magoo eyeglasses on those rare occasions when she attempts the proper counter to questions raised, or wriggling her fingers when she’s called on to make a tough call, when Kay does manage to open her mouth, she’s spoken over, or her opinion discounted out of hand. With arms full of books, she’s left trailing behind her advisors like an apprehensive intern rather than the most important member of the group.
Buyers are skittish about having her in charge, investors balking at the idea of a major newspaper being run by a woman for the first time in the history of the country. Endemic of the way they see it, with a woman in charge The Post has been reduced to pursuing inconsequential puff pieces like the one on the Nixon wedding, while the more serious New York Times continues breaking hard news. Graham is told that they’re concerned she doesn’t have the requisite resolve to turn a serious profit, and she fears this herself, thanking advisor Arthur for his frankness, rather than trying to spare her feelings.
Uncertain she’s up to the challenge, a sense of her own inadequacy has been reinforced all her life. As Bradlee’s wife observes of Kay’s precarious self-image, “when you’re told time and time again that you’re not good enough, that your opinion doesn’t matter as much. When they don’t just look past you, when to them you’re not even there – when that’s been your reality for so long it’s hard not to let yourself think it’s true.” The unfortunate quote Kay attributes to Samuel Johnson – “A woman preaching is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It’s not done well and you’re surprised to see it’s done at all” – gives us an idea of what she’s up against.
Despite having been cultivated in the political circles of Washington, in the sanctity of the home it’s been drummed into her to follow strict segregation of the sexes. During dinner parties for instance, when the talk turns to politics, Kay obediently joins the other ladies ushered out, told that it’s their cue to retire to the parlor, leaving important discussion to men, despite running the sort of newspaper that helps to shape those very opinions. Elizabeth Taylor put up more of a fight back in the ‘50s when her chauvinist husband similarly tried to keep her down in Giant. Her fellow socialites can’t see how Kay keeps up with entertaining when all her spare hours are spent at this day job, as if playing hostess and planning soirees were her primary profession (“Kay throws a great party … Don’t get me wrong, I think she is a lovely woman.”). Arthur, in a snide reference to Katharine’s capabilities, even remarks that the fact her father handed the company over to her husband rather than her, says something about man’s superior capabilities.
To which Bradlee counters that it says more about the backward times, when it wasn’t thought proper for women to work in predominately male professions. Her sense of inferiority in her sex has been so deeply ingrained, Katharine doesn’t even think she should have been offended by such a slight. Confiding in her daughter, she speaks on behalf of a lost generation of happy homemakers, “I was never supposed to be in this job. When my father chose your dad to run the company I thought it was the most natural thing in the world. I was so proud… and I thought that was the way it was supposed to be. Everybody thought that way then. And I was raising you kids, and I was happy in my life, the way it was. But then when it all fell apart, you know … When Phil died I was 45 years old and I had never held, I’d never had to hold a job in my life. I just, I loved the paper, you know, I do so love the paper. I don’t want it to be my fault … I don’t want to let Phil and my father and all of you kids and everybody down.” As others have noted, The Post, in the process of scoring easy talking points regarding women’s place and the patriarchal establishment, is too quick to cavalierly disregard facts for fancy that supports its view. For example, Spielberg ignores that it was Kay’s mother, not her father, who was considered to have been responsible for her lack of self-esteem, and that she’d worked on the Post and other papers long before she ever married. What is perhaps more unfortunate, is that unlike The Color Purple, the dewy-eyed feminist rhetoric tendered to Streep doesn’t quite extend to the other actresses in the cast, none of whom stand out as anything more than ciphers. As Bradlee’s supportive wife Tony, Sarah Paulson, so good in Ryan Murphy TV projects that she wins Emmys for them, is just as woefully wasted as Amy Ryan was in Bridge of Spies. She exists merely to dish out finger sandwiches and serve as his good conscience, offering encouraging words of wisdom when he’s down.
Though the Post has been in Kay’s family her entire life (“Arthur, this company has been in my life for longer than most of the people working there have been alive, so I don’t need the lecture on legacy.”), it hasn’t been her entire life; instead it’s a relatively recent acquisition as far as she’s concerned, which is why it’s in such a financially uncertain state. But the Post is her legacy, passed down through the generations like an heirloom, and thoughts of her revered ancestors weigh down on every decision she makes. Although cash poor, Graham wants to maintain the business for her family’s sake, not believing the grandfather who founded it would want her to relinquish control by giving up further seats on the board of governors. Considering how little faith was placed in her to run the paper on her own by her father, who left it to her husband, and her husband, who only turned it over on his deathbed, she doesn’t want to see the Post fall into the hands of receivers under her stewardship
Doing so would let her family down, prove a woman couldn’t hold their empire together, validating their lack of belief in her. With her steely resolve to see it through, she’s become as entrenched and implacable as all those successive White House administrations, Nixon’s in particular, in their determination not to forfeit Vietnam during their watch. They’re willing to keep it going just a little while longer as a matter of national pride, or at least until they’re out of office (“[Nixon] is just carrying on like all the others, too afraid to be the one who loses the war on his watch… [the president wanting to] avoid the humiliation of an American defeat.”). But while Nixon loses the battle, the ending is a redemptive victory for Graham since the paper will remain in her family for the present (“No changes at this time. Paper will remain in the family and be carried on in the tradition so well set.”).
The movie’s Graham is almost an unformed character at the beginning, and The Post is as much about the undervalued Kay learning to assert herself, finding her voice and making her opinion heard in a man’s world, as it is about her low-circulated paper, looked down on by the establishment, carving its own competitive niche in the newspaper market. The two come into their own together, and Spielberg interweaves their narrative threads – Bradlee’s reporters hunting down their scoop, just as Graham becomes more empowered. Like her scrappy little-paper-that-could, engaged in battle with the big boys, Kay’s seen as second best in comparison to the men who preceded her on the paper.
And she appears far too gracious and well-bred to put up much of a fight. So when she advises Bradlee to cool it rather than risk raising the president’s ire further by fighting the executive edict banning Post reporters, despite their desire to mount a resistance (“If the White House is gonna take a stance like that, don’t you think that we should plant a flag?”), there seems little hope she will stick to her guns, standing firm and backing him in his determination to post the Pentagon Papers, when facing threats of even harsher government reprisal in the form of a lawsuit.
The politically naïve Graham begins the film just playing at newspaper publishing, seeking to keep the peace by acquiescing to the opinions of others, a people pleaser even when those opinions run counter to her own intuition. As she tells her daughter, it’s hard to say no to the president of the United States. On intimate terms with those in power, she doesn’t want to rub her friends the wrong way, endangering her social position. So when her own paper is reporting news about her conservative social set, the coverage can’t help but be slanted.
Her Post represents them in the most favorable light imaginable, preserving their reputations by attempting to keep them free of scandal. Meaning she’s not running a serious newspaper as much as an image laundering public relations firm. Coming from money, this newspaper heiress is suspected by Bradlee and his crusading journalists of leaning too far to the right. She’s viewed with healthy skepticism as an informer in their midst, intent on covering up and killing stories about the same corrupt politicians and government officials who comprise her inner circle.
Bradlee points out how Kay and her husband were the only couple both the Johnsons and Kennedys wanted to socialize with, indicative of how Graham attempts to straddle the polarizing political fence. But Kay turns the accusation back around as she points out Bradlee’s own close relationship with the Kennedys, “Hard to believe you would’ve gotten all those invitations if you didn’t pull a few punches.” Bradlee tries to make Graham understand that her allegiance should now be pledged first and foremost to the paper and its public, that she can no longer deign to cater to the needs of her powerful friends, any more than Bradlee should have when he buddied around with JFK, thinking of Jack as a friend, rather than a source, same way Graham thinks of McNamara. As the real Graham pointed out in her memoir, back in some unspecified utopic past prior to our modern media age, politicians and press are said to have trusted each other enough to socialize openly, chatting without concern that anything they said was on the record. Rich newspaper publishers mixed in the same high society swirl as the powerful politicians they editorialized about and the unspoken assumption was that they ascribed to a shared gentlemen’s agreement, where they covered up each other’s sins as much as possible.
The movie’s Graham claims not to be shielding her wealthy contacts in this way, and probably believes in her heart she’s not, simply being the good hostess by not repeating their confidences to outside ears. Yet Kay must learn during the course of proceedings that good news reporters can’t be both sources and friends, allowing personal feelings to cloud their good judgment. One must choose between one or the other. “The days of smoking cigars together down on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are over,” Bradlee states. Unconsciously squeezing her granddaughter’s toy as if it were a stress ball, Ben encourages Kay to play cat and mouse with such social contacts as McNamara.
And when she protests “That’s not my role, Ben, you know that. I wouldn’t presume to tell you what you should write about him. Just as I wouldn’t take it upon myself to tell him that he should hand over a classified study, which would be a crime by the way, just so he can serve as your source,” he corrects her with “Our source, Katharine…,” making them sound like conspiratorial lovers, as he woos her away from her present paramour the way Walter Burns did Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday. Reminding her where her first priority now lies, “I get it, you have a relationship with Bob McNamara. But don’t you think you have an obligation as well to the paper and to the public?”
Taking such counsel to heart, Graham turns informant, beginning to pass on the intel collected from McNamara and other people in high places, exploiting her social connections, placing herself in an intermediary position somewhere between a snitch and a journalist. When, having just lunched with New York Times managing editor Abe Rosenthal (Michael Stuhlbarg, appearing to be channeling Edward G. Robinson in Five Star Final), and overheard that his paper is barred from publishing anymore classified documents dealing with the cause and conduct of the Vietnam War, a conscientious Kay promptly calls Ben with tomorrow’s headline. But we never see what the possible fallout may be from this on Kay and Abe’s relationship. We’re not even sure what she’s doing consorting with the enemy on such cozy terms in the first place. Since we never see the reactions of Kay’s friends when she passes along stray phrases, choice bits of gossip, and private confidences, trading in insider information like an industrial spy, a matronly Mata Hari, we need never second guess her seemingly mercenary behavior. The movie certainly harbors no ambivalence about her actions, depicting them as a positive step in Graham’s further evolution toward becoming a fully realized (newspaper) woman, her heart bleeding the ink coursing through her veins by the end, occupying her own office within the Post building and taking a personal interest in the nuts and bolts of her business operation by visiting the basement printing press. Like a died-in-the-wool columnist, Graham relishes a good investigative assignment, but doesn’t want to grill old friend Bob McNamara too hard, or advise him to commit a crime by handing over the classified papers just so her Post can increase its cachet by printing them (“As much as I do relish a good investigative assignment, Bob McNamara is an old friend going through a lot in his life right now. He probably has said all he wants to say.”).
An old bloodhound like Bradlee however, who has a well-developed nose for news, knows McNamara subconsciously wants Kay to publish, so he can come clean while still absolving his guilty conscience about it. Believing she’s the only person he can trust, assured of being more favorably treated than he would be at the hands of The New York Times, he’s feeling her out, raising the prospect of his culpability in the crime because he wants to turn State’s evidence. She’s encouraged by Bradlee to use McNamara as a source to get one up on the Times (‘finding a source is like finding a needle in a haystack’) and secure their own copy of his study. But while McNamara may ultimately feel betrayed when Kay doesn’t go soft on him, we’re made to feel that he betrayed her first, his standing lies placing her soldier son (Stark Sands) in harm’s way, a fact she confronts him with “You let it go on and on. My son is home now and safe, thank God, but you watched him go. You knew we couldn’t win over there for years and years and yet you let me, you let so many of our friends send their boys off.” Kay will again wake with a start after falling asleep reading the Times’ revelations about McNamara’s complicity in the cover-up, and its apparent that this is meant to be a symbolic awakening, rousing her from her prolonged, complacent slumber. Her eyes have been figuratively opened for the first time in her life. Having wised up and had her political conscience raised, by the end of the film Kay is being pulled away from her high class functions to deal with earth shaking, real world matters. With all these men swarming around her, courting her opinion like a queen bee, she even displays the gumption to take command, like a general in the midst of battle, ordering her coterie of male advisers out of the room when Fritz makes a business call intended for her ears only, telling them that they can listen if they wish, from the distant extension in the hall, so as not to exert any undue influence over her.
Giddy for the first time with a sense of self-confidence, Kay can now quote with clear recall the speech she had rehearsed during the earlier board meeting. Remembering the lines she’d forgotten, she points out a loophole in the prospectus’ logic (“The prospectus also talks about the mission of the paper which is outstanding news collection and reporting… and that the newspaper will be dedicated to the welfare of the nation and to the principals of a free press, so one could argue that the bankers were put on notice… are [these such extraordinary circumstances] for a newspaper? One that covers the Nixon White House?”). Ben begins to glow with newfound respect for her, crossing his arms in flattering imitation after she does so in satisfaction, making it clear she’s become his hero. Now when she asks Ben if he’s worried, he says no, that’s her job, knowing he can rest secure in the knowledge that she can handle the responsibility, having fully emerged from beneath the intimidating patriarchal shadows which still litter the Post’s corridors with their portraits.
Where before she had thanked Arthur for his frankness about her presence on the board making people skittish, she’s come into her own, telling him “And this is no longer my father’s company, it’s no longer my husband’s company. It’s my company. And anyone who thinks otherwise probably doesn’t belong on my board.” Though she trusted McNamara enough to let him select her senior advisers, and appreciates how he was there for her following her husband’s death, she makes clear that she’s only “Asking for his opinion, not his permission,” to make the tough call she needs to with the fate of her family’s paper now hanging in the balance. Empathizing with him she says “I know how difficult it can be to … make choices that will… let’s just say I may have a big decision to make…” Though it will be a far less flawed decision making process than MacNamara’s own had been on Vietnam (“Our decision making process was…” – “Flawed. It was flawed. That’s what your study said.”).
It’s Bradlee’s argument, persuading her to conquer her fear of the president’s personal reprisal and act with purpose, that makes the most sense in her moment of crisis – “It will look like we were afraid (if we don’t publish). We will lose, the country will lose, Nixon wins. Nixon wins this one, and the next one, and all the ones after that because we were scared.” Considering this final decision to go ahead and publish the Pentagon Papers is supposed to show Kay growing as a person, it seems petty to point out that even in this, the most momentous decision of her life, she still seems to be deferring to what a man thinks she should do, regardless of whether it be heroic Bradlee rather than villainous McNamara who’s offering his advice, if not his permission. So it’s meaningful to show her resolutely defending her initial pronouncement as her male advisers clamor for her to buckle under, throwing her hands up in exasperation at their contradictory storm of opinions, having made her best judgement call and being done with it (“Then my decision stands. And I’m going to bed.”). A limited outlet at the time, the Post may have less to lose than The New York Times in battling it out with the government in court, but Kay and the manual workers manning the printing presses, whose jobs are on the line, have everything riding on a successful litigation (“We have a responsibility to the company, to all the employees and to the long term health of the paper.”). Real jobs are hanging in the balance, careers at stake if the paper goes under. As she strolls through the milling newsroom, teeming with journalistic activity, she’s wracked by guilt over the imminent danger she’s placed them all in. Trying to undermine Kay’s good judgment, naysayer Arthur tries to convince her that she’s making a serious mistake by publishing, one that will cost her and her paper dearly and hurt every person gathered at her party not to mention the hundreds of others who work for her – “For your sake and the sake of every one of your employees I hope that you will reconsider.”
Even Bradlee’s wife admits she didn’t think Kay would actually go through with publishing, given her paper’s already precarious position and everything she personally has at stake (“Wow. I didn’t think Kay would do it. That’s brave… we both know this will do nothing but burnish your reputation and as for your job, you can always find another one… You’re very brave, but Kay’s in a position she never thought she’d be in. A position I’m sure plenty of people don’t think she should have… So to make this decision, to risk her fortune and the company that’s been her entire life, well I think that’s brave.”). It’s expressly thanks to her unique perspective that Bradlee, who was thinking only of himself before, comes to fully appreciate the position he’s putting Kay in, how much more she has invested, and hence has to lose, than he does himself. But the Post also has an ethical responsibility to edify subscribers and check presidential overreach. By not going to print, the lives of American soldiers still overseas fighting a lost cause, like the brother of that intern from the government opposition Kay meets at the courthouse, Nancy (Coral Peña), would remain endangered (“Can you guarantee me that we could go to print without endangering any of our soldiers?”).
The Post is putting more than just its credibility and receivership on the line. It will be seen as a violation of the Espionage Act if they publish the classified Pentagon Papers. Much as Bradlee will ask Kay, who hates hypothetical questions, if she would publish the papers were they in her possession, Ellsberg asks Bagdikian, “Would you go to prison to stop this war?” When he’s told, “Theoretically, sure,” he seeks to clarify, “You are going to publish the papers even with an injunction?… Then it’s not so theoretical is it?” The Post is flirting with real hard time by challenging the government’s attempts to squelch a free and unfettered press (“We can’t hold them accountable if we don’t have a newspaper.”).
But it’s made clear their calling is to a higher power, where notions of journalistic integrity dwell. Both Bagdikian and Chalmers Roberts (Philips Casnoff) threaten to up and resign if the story is squelched, while Greenfield assures the lawyers that “the whole staff will revolt if we don’t publish.” A court has never stopped a paper from publishing in the history of the republic, yet a gag order is placed on the Post by the Attorney General enjoining them to refrain from further publication, following the similar injunction Nixon sought against The New York Times to cease and desist (“I think Jefferson just rolled over in his grave.”).
The executive branch’s attempt to suppress the fundamental freedom of the First Amendment by censoring such information in this way is seen as a constitutional threat that impacts all news outlets. This is why the Post wants to take the case to court, to preserve their right, the rights of all papers, to publish under the protections of the constitution. “The only way to protect the right to publish is to publish,” Bradlee explains, and thereby expose the government’s attempts to keep their cover-up under wraps. But if a federal judge could stop the Times from publishing big as they are, Graham doesn’t see how her less imposing Post could commit the same infraction without facing similar repercussions.
Afraid to jeopardize the future of her paper, Kay is illumined by Bradlee that “If we live in a world where the government can tell us what we can and cannot print then the Washington Post as we know it has already ceased to exist.” Despite being a local paper with modest margins, modest ambitions and only twenty-five good reporters on the payroll, the Post ends up defending the First Amendment rights of every news outlet in the country, both large and small. Not considered in the same league as The New York Times initially, David to their Goliath, it will still finish the fight they started, inspiring others to join their cause. Their determined daring to move forward with publishing becomes an act of solidarity among all unified newspapers, just as Bradlee had earlier claimed it would be for them to share their notes on the Nixon wedding the Post was barred from (“It’ll be an act of solidarity. They’ll be defending the First Amendment.”) By standing as one, overlooking their own internecine competitiveness (“Nice to be on the same side for once.”) in their collective interest, all of the country’s papers join forces and publish, Bagdikian delivering portions of the Pentagon Papers to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, Tallahassee Democrat, Detroit Free Press, The Philadelphia Enquirer, etc. knowing the government can’t suppress them all (“At least we are not alone.”). The Post is pushed out of its status as a local daily, as it makes the front page of every newspaper, becoming its own headline, raising its profile to national prominence (“No matter what happens tomorrow, we are not a little local paper anymore.”). An underdog “nipping at the heels of the Times…” as they fought an uphill battle “so we can pretend like we’re even remotely in the same league,” they now stand shoulder to shoulder together, second best no longer, the two major national newspapers full equals in the eyes of the court.
The Pentagon Papers, unwittingly thrown in the lap of the Post by Nixon, who’d done them the additional kind service of shutting down the Times, eliminating their chief competition after they’d been playing catch-up for the past six years, “reading the news instead of reporting it,” actually prove a gift horse in disguise. So in its way, the Post only ends up rising in stature by riding on the coattails of its primary rival after all, same as it had sought to do at the beginning, by sending spies over to steal scoops. But in a piece of judicial insight handed down to the ages, words of wisdom that could certainly use reiteration in this beleaguered day and age, it was established by presiding Justice Black in the Supreme Court’s 6 to 3 ruling that –
“The founding fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”
Graham relates that her husband once told her news was only the first rough draft of history, but enough time has passed for the events depicted by The Post to have been solidified in the chronological record, so commentators who have criticized the film for distorting the facts make a convincing case. The concept of ‘history according to Hollywood’ is nothing new, artistic license frequently being taken with the facts in the service of good drama.
Still James Goodale, The New York Times’ general counsel during the Pentagon Papers scandal, has taken issue with how the film shifts emphasis in order to champion The Washington Post for doing what The New York Times should by all accounts be credited with – publishing The Pentagon Papers, an act which led to the initial court case being brought by the government against them. Indeed, the Post really just picked up where the Times left off, carrying the case through to victory in the Supreme Court after all the groundwork had been laid. The way the movie presents events however, as Goodale noted in The Daily Beast, is as backward as giving chief credit to the Times, rather than the Post, for exposing Watergate.
Though there’s some sense in his argument that with the news currently being under assault like never before, it’s all the more important to ensure that the facts are reported accurately, rather than clouding reality and fiction, the job of movies as an artistic medium is not to serve the same function as a news outlet, checking for errors and rigidly disseminating the hardboiled truth. Any reasonable movie patron who goes to The Post readily expecting a dry rundown of undiluted datum deserves what they get. Instead, film as an art form, film should seek to unveil deeper truths, beyond what can be discerned on the surface from a clear and concise recounting of historical fact.
At best, movies based on true events should whet viewers’ appetites, motivate them to learn more about the subject, and by doing some additional digging, ferret out the truth for themselves. Inspired to research on their own in this way, viewers join the larger school of mass communications, becoming the very sort of intrepid, investigative journalists The Post shows such deference toward. To be fair, credit is due where credit is due, but clearly the filmmakers felt there was more drama and emotional investiture in the slightly skewed version of events they concocted, Spielberg and co. shifting the film’s focus by moving The Washington Post to center stage, simply because there was more of a story there to be told.
And I’m inclined to believe their artistic instincts were spot-on in this regard. My sneaking suspicion is that Spielberg fully intended to blur the public’s perception of the various news outlets directly responsible for publishing the Pentagon Papers at the time, so that the Post could better represent all the nation’s papers, as it comes to do at the end. Same as he seems to be trying to blur the lines of demarcation between the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, to create a more overarching idea of how important all newspapers have historically been in rooting out political corruption, keeping the country and its crooked politicians honest.
I’ll let the ink dry on that though, since there’s a far deeper flaw in The Post’s illogical line of reasoning which doesn’t sit right with me. For over a year now, political pundits have been comparing the Trump administration to Nixon’s, and the Russia affair to Watergate. But, in order to highlight the current vitriol being leveled at the Fourth Estate, the film instead focuses on the earlier issue of the Pentagon Papers, flying far wide of the mark in terms of the actual comparison the rest of the world has been making all this time. In his haste to capture the moment, releasing a film intent on championing the beleaguered press in these difficult dog days, Spielberg pushed through this project that touches only peripherally on Watergate itself. Talk about burying the lead.
Perhaps he felt that story had already been sufficiently told in All the President’s Men, so there was no need to rehash it. Nevertheless, with the plot re-focused in this way, The Post is left feeling strangely like prelude, ending where it should, more logically, just be beginning, with the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex. Drafting a veritable blueprint for Russia’s subsequent cyber attack, hacking into the Democratic National Committee servers, this witty end neatly ties into a bow all the myriad allusions the movie’s drawn between that time and this. And in a too precious prophecy, The Post ends on a quote fit to print, with Graham bemoaning to Bradlee “I don’t think I could ever live through something like this again.”