Steven Spielberg seems determined to be the Carl Sandburg of American cinema, and he’ll probably make it. His latest movie The Post (as in The Washington Post) is a riveting, if romanticized) historical drama, and startlingly relevant.
The Post barrels along with a pleasurably bustling energetic pace despite a talky but literate script that tells a vital American story of journalism and politics, that unfolded during a couple of fateful weeks in the summer of 1971. The New York Times, followed by The Washington Post, published extensive excerpts from a top-secret government history of the Vietnam War that came to be known as The Pentagon Papers. That history revealed the lies told to the American people about U.S. involvement in Indochina dating back to the Truman administration, including the fact that the top brass knew the war was basically unwinnable.
The fascinating screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer focuses on The Washington Post, where executive editor Ben Bradlee, played with a folksy urbane edge by Tom Hanks, spars with the paper’s aristocratic owner Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep). Both have ambitions for the paper, but disagree on how to get there. As depicted here, Bradlee has a distinctly mischievous side, and is not above sending a spy into the rival New York Times’ newsroom to get a heads-up on what they’ve got. Bradlee is virtually Hyde to the prim and proper Graham’s Jekyll – and she doesn’t know whether to rein him in or turn him loose.
It makes for highly entertaining drama, and the movie is, from fade-in to closing credits, not only thoroughly entertaining but unnervingly relevant. Much is made of Richard Nixon’s vindictive personality as the White House actually seeks injunctions to stop these two newspapers from printing the truth. The audience is treated to a fascinating detective story here, but the movie also presents a warning: freedom of the press, a bulwark of our constitutional system, is not a guarantee but an ongoing battle. Had Nixon won his court battles we’d be living in a very different America, one in which “fake news” isn’t just an hysterical rant from self-righteous demagogues but a norm, a fact of life that would assure an Orwellian nightmare. The First Amendment stood at a crossroads in the summer of seventy-one, and the right of the people to know the truth stood literally in the crosshairs of autocracy.
Saving the movie from what could have been a fatal preachiness is its portrayal of Graham, who is played by Meryl Streep with an aristocratic imperiousness that belies a fundamental insecurity. Despite her wealth and power, Graham is often treated with dismissive condescension by the stuffed shirts in Brooks Brothers suits that surround her, and when she finally stands her ground the audience will likely want to stand up and cheer.
The film opens with Daniel Ellsberg, played by Matthew Rhys like a brooding, Old Testament prophet, observing, and writing, under fire in the field in Vietnam. After hearing Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (an all but unrecognizably bewigged and bespectacled Bruce Greenwood) proclaiming on the plane ride back that the war is going badly, only to turn around and play cheerleader at an airport press conference, Ellsberg is visibly disgusted. As a research associate at the Rand Corporation, he actually has access to the classified history of the war (truth is sometimes stranger than fiction), which he then proceeds to smuggle out, photocopy and funnel to a Times reporter. The Post is very good at demonstrating the tension and trials of reporting in the era of the analog. Spielberg gets good mileage out of some tense scenes with Bob Odenkirk as a harried Post reporter tracking Ellsberg down using multiple pay phones. Shoe leather on asphalt has always been more exciting than actors staring glassy-eyed at computer screens.
This is the second time that the newspaper The Washington Post has been lionized in a major Hollywood movie. The first, All the President’s Men, was made in 1976 and is an acknowledged classic. The Post screams for comparison – the two tread on similar ground set during a very particular period, after all. But it is the The Post that is the prequel here. Hollywood icon Tom Hanks plays newspaper icon Ben Bradlee, (played by Jason Robards in All the President’s Men) who had to make the decision to publish The Pentagon Papers, and a year later, the articles written by novice reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about the truth behind the Watergate break-in.
One huge difference is at All the President’s Men was set in the seventies and made in the seventies. There’s a certain self-consciousness here, decades later, in the meticulous production design, which has a certain museum-like quality. Spielberg, though, is unquestionably a master of his craft, and when Hanks puts his feet up on a desk next to a manual typewriter, an overflowing ashtray and a rotary telephone, he economically conveys the details that distinguish past from present.
Spielberg, an avid collector of Norman Rockwell paintings, has a distinctly romantic view of American history, and thank God for it. If Robards looked more like Ben Bradlee (and he did), Hanks’ Jimmy Stewart-like take on the late Washington Post editor is entertaining, and helps the point Spielberg is determined to make – that this was a seminal moment in American history that could have gone badly and didn’t partly because unlikely heroes won the day.
The bottom line here though is not the skill with which a bygone decade is cinematically recreated, but the forceful reminder that the issues presented by the story are not only relevant but actually urgent today. The Post reminds us, in the context of a thoroughly entertaining movie, that the fundamental rights guaranteed us by the Constitution must not only be cherished and celebrated, but defended with the iron will and resolve of a mother bear protecting her cubs. Liberty requires more than lip service. Tyrants nearly always justify the abridgement of freedom with plausible-sounding excuses, and a free press is always the first thing to go. The Post entertains and celebrates but also warns. Democracy cannot thrive in the dark. If history teaches us anything (and it does, for those who care to look), democratic governments not only have no fear of the light, but function best where the governed can see the entire process. Newspapers are the rough draft of history, but they are also the harsh light of day in which the slimy, scurrying things that feed on fear in the dark cannot hide.