A win for democracy
A history lesson in the continuing battle for freedom of the press
Perhaps the most important journalistic battle in American history gets the Spielberg treatment in The Post, starring a stellar cast that includes Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.
The film explores The Washington Post’s decision in 1971 to print articles based on the Pentagon Papers, a leaked government study on the history of U.S. involvement Vietnam. It was a move that raised the ire of then-President Richard Nixon, and put the careers of people like publisher Kay Graham (Streep) and Editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) in major jeopardy. Hanks isn’t the first movie star to play Bradlee, the journalism giant who died in 2014. Jason Robards also played him in All the President’s Men, the classic film that covered the Watergate scandal.
The movie starts in 1966 with Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys)—a member of the State Department doing a study for then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood)—in South Vietnam. Embedded with American troops, Ellsberg sees all sorts of atrocities and is a firsthand witness to the growing failure of American participation in the Vietnam War. His forecast about the war’s outcome is bleak, but McNamara and President Johnson (and three presidents before him) share a rosier, false version with the American public in which America is finding great success overseas.
Cut to 1971, when Hanks and Streep get their first scene together in a restaurant where editor and publisher are having breakfast and discussing their big controversy of the day: The White House’s meddling with the Post’s ability to cover the wedding of Nixon’s daughter. Bradlee refuses to bend to Nixon’s will to restrict a certain reporter, while Graham wonders what the big deal is. The scene begins with a long dialogue-rich take that is basically a master class in acting.
Things progress from troubles with weddings to the war following Ellsberg’s unauthorized release of the Pentagon Papers and The New York Times printing the first story about them. This move gets the Times in trouble with the U.S. attorney general and Nixon. And when the Post gets its turn with the thousands of pages of classified documents, Bradlee and Graham have two options: print a deeper story and face charges of treason, or bury the story to help preserve the paper, which is going through a public offering and might not benefit from such controversy.
History has told us what they did, but that doesn’t make The Post any less thrilling. Spielberg not only takes this opportunity to put great actors in play, but also makes the film a grand testament to the golden age of print journalism.
It’s not just the risk-taking of editors, owners and journalists that makes The Post such an absorbing piece of history. The mechanics of turning out a story to the masses with the technology of the 1970s was much more complicated than it is today. Spielberg relishes the chance to show a story getting rolled up on typed paper, shot through an internal delivery system to an editor, the editor going through the story with a pencil, and the final copy eventually placed on a costly template for publication. The sight of mass rolls of paper getting printed and bundled for the streets amounts to one of Spielberg’s more impressive technical feats.
The Post is an impressively staged account of a pivotal moment in our history and, at a time when freedom of the press is actively being challenged by a sitting president, an important movie for the present and future.