At a time when journalism and the news media, in general, is under attack for delivering “fake news,” Steven Spielberg’s film The Post delivers a message on the importance of a free and separate press; the need for the truth to come out despite attacks from those in positions of power and influence.
The Post is a well-timed docudrama on the importance of the press in holding our leaders accountable. Thanks to a screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, as well as the capable vision of director Steven Spielberg, the film works as both a thriller and a history lesson. When first conceived, before the 2016 Presidential election, the film was most likely a look back at a golden era in film, the 1970’s and most directly, at the Alan Pakula film All the President’s Men. Today, it can be taken as a modern-day companion piece. In Donald Trump’s America, The Post is an important reminder that the press must have no connections to any political party or its members. The media is there to serve the public and not the government or the politicians.
It was The New York Times that broke the story of the Pentagon Papers. For those too young to remember, the Pentagon Papers was a confidential report that revealed how successive U.S. administrations knew the Vietnam War was not winnable, and how no President from either party wanted to be known as the first to lose a war. So American soldiers continued to go to war, and many would unnecessarily die. A court order stopped the Times from publishing any further reportage from the thousands and thousands of pages of the report.
It was at this point The Washington Post got hold of their own copy of the 47-volume report and had to make the dicey decision to publish or not. The choice was up to Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and most importantly publisher Katherine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), the widowed wife of Phil Graham, who ran the paper now since her husband’s death.
Bradlee wants to publish the papers though it most likely meant The Washington Post would be dragged into the courtroom right alongside The New York Times. Besides that, Kay was close friends with Defense Secretary Bob McNamara (Robert Greenwood) who commissioned the report. Graham is a greenhorn in the newspaper business, but she realizes the importance of the story. She also knows and worries The Post, a family owned business for years and in financial difficulties, could be shut down.
Steven Spielberg manages to evoke the feel and mood of the 1970’s where the film is set. The Post newsroom is nicely recreated, filled with hustling reporters tracking leads and plenty of paper spread across everyone’s desks; this is, of course, long before computers ruled our lives. Like Spotlight, released two years ago, it will bring back memories of earlier great newspaper movies always filled with a collection of fascinating characters.
Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks head the cast. Streep is technically very good though she seemed too mechanical for me; like she knows at each point in the script where the audiences buttons will be pushed. As Kay, a pioneer in female leadership, she is at first pretty much ignored by all the men advising her. They sometimes talk like she isn’t even in the same room, an important touch reflecting the dynamics of a female in charge back in the 1970’s. In the end, Kay rises to the occasion and makes the final decision of whether to publish or not. Tom Hanks gives a solid performance as does the supporting cast that includes Matthew Rhys (Daniel Ellsberg), Tracy Letts (Fritz Beebe), Bob Odenkirk (Ben Bagdikian) and Sarah Paulson (Tony Bradlee)
The importance of a free press should be at the top of our priorities. It holds those in charge accountable. Still, the world has changed since the 1970’s. Back then, when newspapers were delivered to your doorstep, or you purchased it at a local newsstand, the headlines jumped up at you. It was new! Today, with the 24 hours news cycle on cable news, as well as on-line resources, the power of the newspaper has decreased. For me though, I still like reading the paper; it provides more detailed information than the three minute, or so soundbites blurted out by TV news, whether 24-hour news cycle or not. I also just like the feel of holding a newspaper in my hands. Maybe, I am just old fashion.
Spielberg ends the film with the break-in of the Watergate hotel. It’s a nice segue into the opening scene of All the President’s Men. What a great double feature they would make.
The bottom line is we need a free press, not one that is attacked, under minded or controlled by agenda minded, egotistical, self-centered politicians that only care about image and themselves. The press is our watchdog, that was the way it was in the 1970’s, and it is true today.