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Papers chase

Tom Hanks (center) and Meryl Streep (20th Century Fox)


Papers chase

The Post teaches an important lesson but not the one likely intended

It seems very likely that Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Meryl Streep will end up undercutting their stated ambitions with their new movie The Post (rated PG-13 for brief war violence and language). All three have expressed hopes the film will restore national regard for the Fourth Estate, but the examples of the 1970s-era journalists may further cause the reputation of modern media to suffer by comparison.

Contrary to what you may have heard, The Post deals not with Watergate but with the Pentagon Papers that preceded it. Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham, the great society doyenne who inherits The Washington Post after her husband Phil’s suicide. In the midst of taking the paper’s parent company public, she’s faced with the decision of whether to publish classified documents after a court injunction has already barred The New York Times from doing so. On one side of the argument stand the Post’s board members, who believe publishing will lead to investor flight. On the other are legendary editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and reporter Ben Bagdikian (Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk), who put in the legwork to obtain copies of the documents from leaker Daniel Ellsberg (The Americans’ Matthew Rhys).

The performances are, as one would expect from this lineup, riveting. And for the first half of the movie, you can sit back and enjoy the tension as monumental debates over freedom of the press versus national interest are had over homemade ham sandwiches and lemonade in Bradlee’s living room.

“The only way to defend the right to publish is to publish!” Bradlee barks at quivering corporate lawyers. It may all be a little too noble and consequential to feel entirely realistic, but it’s also a joy to see such serious subjects explored with such crackling energy on screen. This becomes especially true once the story begins to have effects Spielberg and company probably didn’t intend.

It’s impossible to watch Bagdikian’s street-pounding investigative work and not wonder when modern journalists became so content to overlook hot leads and juicy cover-ups. As The Post makes clear, the Pentagon Papers weren’t a Nixon administration scandal, they were Kennedy and Johnson scandals. (Though, unfortunately, it doesn’t go so far as to include the fact that Nixon’s first instinct was to let the Times publish the papers until Henry Kissinger convinced him it would set a damaging precedent.) The Post team never expresses dismay that reporting on the leaked documents will harm the Democratic party in the public’s eyes; they simply weigh their obligations under the First Amendment against their willingness to go to jail.

This feeling of wondering what has become of journalistic integrity grows as Bradlee studies personal photos of himself and JFK and suffers remorse over spiking a negative story or two on behalf of his presidential friend. For all that entertainment headlines are calling The Post a Trump-era tale, this question of the media compromising their ethics to cozy up to power seems far more related to the Obama-Clinton years.

Toward the end, however, Spielberg’s impartial restraint comes to an end, and the film grows ridiculous. Particularly laughable is when he wedges in 2017’s cause du jour—female empowerment. Moral signaling doesn’t get much more conspicuous than when Graham descends the steps of the Supreme Court into a crowd of adoring women thanking her for aiding the cause of feminism by … well, I’m not sure. Happening to inherit a newspaper while female, I guess.

Worse, however (indeed positively fatal), are The Post’s final off-putting moments which tease Watergate as a sort of coming sequel. Suddenly, the carefully modulated tone that “we’re criticizing all government power, not just Republicans,” gives way to gleeful screeching. Stay tuned to see how we’re gonna get Nixon! It’s a long way from that heady debate in Bradlee’s living room.


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  • LV
    Posted: Thu, 01/11/2018 12:51 am

    They're great actors, undoubtedly, but does the mere fact that they appear on a screen somewhere mean that I should part with my time, my money or my not-very-closely-held vexation to run out and see them? If folks want to support them in their visceral anti-Trump endeavors then hey, have at it - but please to remember that "what you subsidise you get more of...". 

  • Janet B
    Posted: Thu, 01/11/2018 11:10 am

    I may want to see this movie to see if they agonize over whether publishing these papers would be detrimental to our country's intelligence and security.  In other words, would it be treasonous.  

    Because that is what has also happened since the media has begun to print anything leaked by an "I-don't-think-this-is-right" government worker.  

    The Times. Wikileaks.

    On second thought, I think I'll skip it.  

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Sat, 01/13/2018 12:23 am

    Megan, You missed the boat on this one. I agree that one should not judge the Washington Post of the Nixon era by the often-tripe that it reports today with its bias extruding all over the place. In those days, it was a different paper. You're mistaken, however; the movie adhered to its original purpose throughout, good to the very last drop.

    1) It is not the movie's fault that Watergate followed on the heels of the Pentagon Papers; nor is it the movie's fault that Nixon happened to be Republican. Just the facts, ma'am, nothing but the facts. The movie made nothing of the great Democrat/Republican divide that exists today. It was an American movie.

    2) Yes, in a very obviously staged ploy, a sea of mostly young women's faces lined the stairs that Katharine Graham descended after her lawyers' defended her paper's first amendment right of freedom of the press before the Supreme Court and the citizens' first amendment rights to receive newspapers' reporting independently of government oversight and censorship. However, these women were not thanking Graham for helping their feminine cause, they were thanking her for helping bring their brothers and sons home from Viet Nam. That was made clear in the remarks by the young female court clerk to Graham as they entered the courtroom. And, as a side effect, Graham also helped women, not feminism as you mistakenly suggest, by overcoming her conditioned feelings of unworthiness as a woman, not as a feminist, to make the kinds of decisions the paper's publisher/owner alone could make.

    To those having been influenced to forgo seeing the movie by what sounds like a sour grapes attitude on your part, it's a great value for your entertainment dollar, an excellent look into the history of our country, which I for one am old enough to have experienced myself, and a wonderful opportunity to enjoy two truly great actors, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, working together. Considering the gravity of the historical situation, their performances, especially Streep's, were underperformed, if anything, not over. Those were indeed great days in the history of our nation, when the people won a battle to receive the truth from the media that our nation's leaders had been hiding for decades for their own selfish reasons.

    The movie also made clear that the leaked papers were about a historical study. That is, there was nothing militarily current in them that might have compromised the security of the United States. The Supreme Court said so. So that objection is answered. It seems that four presidencies had been performing traitorous acts against the trust they held to the American public by not only withholding truth from them but by actually lying outright to the public. The Post was performing a patriotic duty by holding the government accountable to the voice of the people.

    The last two sentences of your review are completing misleading--only biased vision would perceive the ending as you did.

    I do wish today's Washington Post would remember the height from which they have fallen.