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Film Review: The Post

The Post (2017; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

Steven Spielberg’s dramatization of the behind-the-scenes newspaper work and decision-making dilemmas behind The Washington Post‘s publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 is a robust narrative about the patriotic duty of the free press to hold the powerful to account, despite social, political, and legal inconvenience and aggressive, cover-up-minded pushback from those powerful players. Its applicability to America’s contemporary situation is not lost on Spielberg and certainly is not lost on screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, but this contextual association is left to the audience to make for themselves.

Spielberg begins The Post by entering the tropical jungle meat-grinder of the Vietnam War in 1966, following State Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) as he embeds with a U.S. military unit hit hard by a nighttime Viet Cong ambush. This crucial scene-setting establishes the stakes for what Ellsberg will later decide to do: young Americans are dying in a war in Southeast Asia, but why? Ellsberg’s boss, then-Secretary of State Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood, a go-to choice for Presidents but an eerie match for JFK and LBJ’s key cabinet member), seeks his subordinate’s first-hand assessment as support for his own private view that America’s involvement in Vietnam is not likely to lead to success and that the situation is indeed deteriorating. But Ellsberg becomes disillusioned when McNamara publically emphasizes that the situation is improving, contrary not only to behind-closed-door discourse but also to an exhaustive report compiled at the behest of the data-minded McNamara that detailed the flawed decision-making that deepened American commitments in Indochina despite ample evidence that what they were doing was not working, even as successive administrations dishonestly told the American public that matters were getting better and victory was possible (McNamara felt rather guilty about this later in his life, as Errol Morris demonstrated). Ellsberg therefore sneaks out and copies the report from the offices of contractor Rand Corporation, his intentions initially unclear but easily graspable.

Flash ahead to 1971. It’s the eve of The Washington Post going public on the stock exchange in order to raise more funds to expand its journalistic work, an effort which consumes the attention of the paper’s publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), who is also a personal friend of McNamara’s. Editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks, a post-millenial Spielberg fave) is dealing with his reporter being shut out of covering the wedding of President Richard Nixon’s daughter, but suspects something much bigger is afoot at the New York Times, whose star Vietnam reporter Neil Sheehan hasn’t had anything published in months. It soon becomes clear that Sheehan and a Times team has had Ellsberg’s copy of the Pentagon Papers for some time and the paper of record soon begins publishing front-page stories about the government misleading the American public about the war. As the Nixon Administration gets a federal judge to order the Times to halt publishing stories based on these top-secret documents for national security reasons, Bradlee’s newsroom receives copies of the Papers as well, from a random hippie-looking walk-in and through a connection between reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) and Ellsberg himself.

The core dramatic dilemma of The Post places the weight of great choice on the shoulders of a member of the elite, Graham herself. Pressed on one side by Bradlee’s lofty insistence on journalistic integrity and press freedom and on the other by more practical concerns of sinking the public offering (Tracy Letts and Bradley Whitford are two male executive advisors warning her on this front) and indeed possibly even going to prison, Graham must decide whether to publish the Papers or not. Hannah and Singer and Spielberg see in Graham a figure defined by her gender and the glass-ceiling expectations of her time. When her father, who owned the Post, died, he left it not to her but to her husband, and it only came to her upon his suicide; she is keenly aware that she is not seen as equal to the many men who run her realm, and Streep allows that knowledge to play across her surface layer of WASP-ish self-possession. Spielberg also blocks out a contrasting pair of scenes to emphasize her inadvertent role as a figure of sort-of-feminism in the midst of patriarchal power structures: at the stock exchange on the day she takes the Post public, Streep passes up a staircase through a crowd of female secretaries and then through a set of doors to a smoky room full of powerful men, and then when leaving the Supreme Court after the lawyers for the Post and the Times argued for their right to publish the Pentagon Papers, she passes through a crowd of female onlookers, this time down a staircase but with an added measure of self-possession and confidence.

There’s a lot to like about The Post, with its crackling, overlapping dialogue, steady and smooth direction from one of Hollywood’s supreme craftsmen (who has his usual cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, and composer John Williams on board to help), and superb cast of character actors. Spielberg applies his cast like a painter layers brushstrokes, with actors capable of lead-character depth appearing in a scene or two or three to nail down a certain character’s role in the proceedings. Jesse Plemons descends with withering practical realism as the paper’s lead legal counsel, Michael Stuhlbarg is the New York Times‘ brash publisher Abe Rosenthal, Alison Brie floats through as Graham’s daughter, Sarah Paulson as Bradlee’s wife manages the crowd of harried reporters that descend on her home with platters of sandwiches and her daughter’s lemonade, and those reporters are played by the capable likes of Carrie Coon, Odenkirk, and David Cross (Spielberg seems to purposely pose the latter two together in frame in the paper’s newsroom as a brief Mr. Show reunion). Rhys plays Ellsberg as a careful and principled whistleblower in a manner that should prove familiar to observers of contemporary examples like Daniel J. Jones of The Report or Chelsea Manning or especially Edward Snowden. The latter two whistleblowers’ respective fates of imprisonment and exile were avoided by Ellsberg only because of the Watergate scandal which truly made the Washington Post‘s name as a top-notch investigative newspaper, and the burglary which set it off is The Post‘s final scene, demonstrating the Nixon regime’s deepening illegality and paranoid distrust for political and legal norms as well as the vital importance of Graham and Bradlee shepherding their paper through the Pentagon Papers crisis so that it might soon bring down a criminal President.

Of course, at this moment the United States has an even more shamelessly criminal Republican President with an openly antagonistic relationship to the American press (the “fake news” as he likes to call it, when he isn’t calling reporters out-and-out traitors) that makes Nixon’s rhetoric about the media seem mild in comparison. It cannot be said that the U.S. media, the Washington Post (no longer owned by the Graham family since they sold it to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2013) very much included, has not covered the shady corruption and voluminous misbehaviour of Donald J. Trump, although its coverage was also complicit in his unfortunate rise: Fox News’ breathlessly hagiographic Dear Leader angle on him, obviously, but also NBC launching Trump to rehabilitory stardom with The Apprentice and softening his image during the campaign with Jimmy Fallon’s hair-ruffling on The Tonight Show and a retrospectively mortifying hosting gig on Saturday Night Live, CNN’s pillar-to-post live broadcast of his frothing-at-the-mouth campaign rallies and persistent employment of his dishonest surrogates as both-sides pundits, and print, television, and online media’s disastrous obsession with the gussied-up nothing story of Hillary Clinton’s private email server that is one of many factors that presaged Trump’s 2016 election victory.

As excellent as The Post is as a film celebrating the inspiring courage of American journalism (and since this is Spielberg, there is of course a scene of climactic positive triumph, complete with swelling John Williams score), a creeping knowledge of the future of the press relationship with disingenuous and criminal government actions lessens its current impact. While Hollywood made a movie like The Post glorifying the historical bravery of a paper whose chest-beating motto is “Democracy Dies in Darkness”, American democracy may very well be dying in the full light of day, and not without the collusion, alternately advertent and inadvertent, of the vaunted free press. Sure, it’s “just” a movie, but it has also proven to be not nearly enough.

It’s interesting, given the current American milieu with which it is extratextually contrasted, that The Post explores the tension between journalistic freedom and the free market imperatives of bottom-line capitalism (especially where those imperatives overlap with the backslapping chuminess of the self-preservationist elite) the way it does. In the Trump era, we see a democratic crisis that has advanced to a troubling place largely due to journalism’s weakness in holding the powerful to account in the face of the drive for profit in a shifting, unstable industry, just as the powerful decide not to check a dangerously reactionary but superficially business-friendly leader in order to keep the tap open and the wealth flowing into their tanks. Like Nixon, Trump fights with the press and tries to limit and discredit their exposure of his malfeasance, but he also knows how to manipulate it and exploit its weak points to get what he wants from it (having a readymade state media in Fox News doesn’t hurt; American history might have turned out very differently if Rupert Murdoch’s tacky cable-TV reincarnation of Der Stürmer was around in the 1970s to spread pro-Nixon propaganda 24-7). The Post is (highly adapted) history, but as a rallying cry for current power-challenging press integrity, it’s unfortunately a nostalgic fantasy.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews
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