By Tom Siebert
In a dark age when most Americans get their news from their favorite cable channel, and the president of the United States refers to the media as the “enemy of the people,” “The Post” hearkens back to a more enlightened time when newspapers were widely read, believed, and beneficial to the public good.
It is June 1971 and the New York Times is publishing excerpts of the so-called Pentagon Papers, a voluminous, decades-long discrediting of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which by that time had cost more than 50,000 American lives. John Mitchell, attorney general under President Richard M. Nixon, secures a court injunction to stop publication of the top-secret documents, citing national security and the Espionage Act of 1917.
In steps the Washington Post to begin publishing its own articles based on the Pentagon Papers, setting in motion an epic two-week court battle that threatens to swallow up both newspapers, along with the First Amendment.
Legendary director Steven Spielberg, noting the similarities between presidential attacks on the press then and now, rushed “The Post” into production and filmed the movie in the stunning span of six months. He could not have done it without Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, arguably the best actor and actress of our times, as well as a stellar supporting cast that includes Allison Brie, Carrie Coon, David Cross, Bruce Greenwood, Pat Healy, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Jessie Piemons, Matthew Rhys, John Rue, and Zach Woods.
The male-dominated cast, reflecting the man’s business world of the 1970s, is led by Hanks, who plays fabled Post executive editor Ben Bradlee with flair and feistiness. But it is Streep’s tour de force performance as Post publisher Katharine Graham that carries the film, chronicling her remarkable career arc from self-doubting widow to feminist pioneer to free press champion.
Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, “The Post” also addresses the cozy relationships that many news people once had with the public officials whom they covered. Bradlee, for instance, had been good friends with President John F. Kennedy, whose administration is among four that are damned in the Pentagon Papers for misleading the nation about Vietnam.
And this multi-dimensional movie also shows how Graham’s friendship with Robert McNamara is painfully strained by her newspaper’s pending publication of the papers, which quote the former defense secretary as concluding as early as 1965 that the war was unwinnable.
Director Spielberg proves once again that he is a master story teller––from the jarring opening scene of U.S. troops fighting in Vietnam, to the John le Carré-like skullduggery depicting how government analyst turned peace activist Daniel Ellsberg stole copies of the Pentagon Papers from a California think tank, to the tense conversations between Graham and the Post’s investors, who fear that the publishing controversy will cause the newspaper to go under just as it is going public.
And as he did with his previous period pieces such as “Bridge of Spies,” “Lincoln,” and “Schindler’s List,” Spielberg demonstrates that he is a virtuoso of verisimilitude. “The Post” is accurately replete with 1970s hair styles, sideburns, wide ties, bell bottoms, and even a mass peace rally held outside of the United States Supreme Court Building. (But the director did display his artistic license by accompanying the opening 1966 war scene with Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River,” a song that was not recorded until 1969.)
The fast-paced film is scored by mega-Oscar winner John Williams, who deftly blends suspenseful electronic sounds with dramatic orchestral flourishes. But the real soundtrack of “The Post” is composed of clicking typewriters, ringing phones, and rumbling presses.
Spoiler alert: “The Post” ends well. The Supreme Court rules 6-3 in favor of the New York Times, Washington Post, and the 15 other newspapers that had begun publishing the Pentagon Papers. Graham and Bradlee do not go to prison. And two years later, the Post goes on to break the Watergate Scandal, which made it a national paper of record.
But what about today––when newspapers are struggling to survive in the digital age and Americans have retreated to their cable news niches, with millions on each side claiming to have cornered the market on the truth and dismissing the others’ media sources as “fake news”?
This sharp national divide will be evidenced writ large during the upcoming O.J. moment when half the country will believe the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller, while the other half will not. What then?
Most newspapers still provide responsible objective journalism but their readers are dwindling by the day. And even a great newspaper movie such as “The Post” has a limited audience. At my suburban Chicago multiplex, a sparse crowd showed up on the opening night of this important film. Meanwhile, for nearly a month, two screens in the theater complex have been drawing packed houses for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
Perhaps the slogan for our time should be: “Fiction trumps truth.”