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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.