The Post

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Tom Hanks (as Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (as Kay Graham) in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE POST. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise.

There are two types of courage involved with what I did. When it comes to picking up a rifle, millions of people are capable of doing that, as we see in Iraq or Vietnam. But when it comes to risking their careers, or risking being invited to lunch by the establishment, it turns out that’s remarkably rare. -Daniel Ellsberg

About 20 minutes into Alan J. Pakula’s ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, The Washington Post publisher Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) emerges from his office to meet with Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to discuss the Watergate lead.  One of the fastest kinetic tracking shots at the time, it’s punctuated by the Eastman 5254 100T film stock, “pushed” in chemical processing resulting in a slight, diffuse glow of the grid of overhead lights—a shot that sticks in my mind as surely as it stuck in the mind of a young filmmaker who had just come off directing JAWS.  His next film, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, about a man’s relentless pursuit of the truth to the incredulity of all those around him, took on a decidedly different look.

In THE POST, director Steven Spielberg fluidly mirrors this shot with a SteadiCam following Bradlee (Tom Hanks) through the newsroom as the drama begins to unfold around Daniel Ellsberg’s (Matthew Rhys) 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers—a decades-spanning intelligence assessment which betrayed administration doubts about success in Vietnam, highlighting the influence of what Eisenhower warned was a growing Military Industrial Complex.

When Ellsberg returns from Vietnam after conducting part of the intelligence assessment for the State Department, Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) concludes with his advisors that the Vietnam situation is worsening, “We put another hundred thousand troops in the field, things are no better.  To me that means things are actually worse,” then does an about-face before the press.

This bald-faced lie sets Ellsberg’s mind to providing The New York Times with morsels of the study that demonstrates Presidents dating back to Eisenhower committed U.S. forces to military actions in Southeast Asia that were nonetheless doomed to failure.

THE POST also tells the story of the paper’s beleaguered owner, Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), who inherited the paper from her husband Philip following his untimely suicide.  At loggerheads with Bradlee, Kay agonizes over whether or not to publish Ellsberg’s find amidst skepticism that the paper can be run as profitably as competing publishing entities Gannett and Knight/Ridder, the latter of which was purchased by McClatchy in 2006.

Spielberg and writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer reinforce the “feet on the ground” aspect of traditional journalism as we watch people running, from office to office, building to building, out at dawn on a Sunday morning to grab the first copies of The New York Times issue featuring Neil Sheehan’s report on McNamara’s study.  Like Pakula’s Director of Photography Gordon Willis, Janusz Kaminski shoots frequently from low angles to capture those drop ceilings at The Post and the The New York Times.  Spielberg contrasts this nose-to-grindstone milieu with the aristocratic boardroom drama of the pending initial public offer of Washington Post stock on the American Exchange.

“You think this is really necessary…. taking the company public,” says Donald Graham, who later sold Washington Post Co. to Jeff Bezos for $250 million in 2013.  Bezos was admonished in the press for lacking due diligence in his acquisition; in retrospect this compels one to scrutinize Donald Graham’s disposing of a key pillar of the family’s political and social presence.  A contentious end to a paper that serendipitously landed in the hands of his mother.  The paper’s founder, Eugene Meyer, passed control of The Post to Philip and not Kay—a fact that Board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) dredges up as he balks at the IPO, which the underwriters price $3 million less than planned.  Restraining anger, Kay responds fulsomely, “Thank you, Arthur, for your frankness.”

Assistant Managing Editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) follows leads to locate Ellsberg—now off the grid as the Nixon administration secures an injunction against The Times, the first such censure of the free press in America.  Kaminski echoes the closeups (minus the split diopter) of Woodward (Redford) hitting up all his contacts to track down Ken Dahlberg and the $25,000 check that connected Nixon’s re-election campaign to the Watergate break-in.

These moments, however, are beset by numerous Spielbergisms.  Returning to D.C. with the classified documents on an Eastern Airlines flight, a stewardess asks about the large box in the window seat, “Must be precious cargo.”

Ben replies, “Yeah. It’s just… government secrets.”

Later, as the team of journalists scramble to reassemble the un-numbered pages of the classified study, they’re paid a visit by Senior legal counsel Roger Clark (Jesse Plemons).  Tony Bradlee (Sarah Paulson), Ben’s wife, counts heads to make them sandwiches.

“Tell me these aren’t the pages from the McNamara study,” says Clark.

“Four thousand pages of it,” concedes Bradlee.

Just then, Tony enters with the sandwiches, and the punchline, “Anybody hungry?”

Spielberg atones, barely, bestowing Tony with the “Oh please” speech that’s important, especially now, to differentiate the task Kay has as a woman entrepreneur from that of her male publisher. But the point is to further Bradlee’s arc and, while it’s made in one sentence, Spielberg throws in four more.

Later, the plot crescendoes—a montage of the presses and trucks rolling, accentuated by the portentous bombast of John Williams’ score.  And, aside from a conclusion I won’t spoil except to say that it plays exactly like the meta-film twist at the end of Altman’s THE PLAYER, Spielberg can’t resist to inject a Gumpian “brush with history” as then Assistant Attorney General Rehnquist, a future Justice of the Supreme Court, calls to advise Bradlee the publication of the papers is prohibited by the Espionage Act of 1917—just a beat too late to stop the story going to print.

I grapple with Spielberg’s directorial ethos.  An immensely talented filmmaker, he tries too hard to please audiences when he doesn’t have to—I get why.  Like a publisher bristling to print the most important story of our time, threatened by exogenous forces, he buries his own lede an hour into this 109-minute crowd-pleaser:

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks might be the two most overrated and yet simultaneously most talented actors sought by such Generals of the Arts as Spielberg.  Before making her historic decision, Kay presses Ben about his palling around on Kennedy’s yacht, “Hard to believe you would’ve gotten all those invitations if you didn’t… pull a few punches.”

Streep subtly accents the pause with a dismissive twirl of her wrist.

Later, Bradlee admonishes Kay, “I never thought of Jack [Kennedy] as a source.  I thought of him as a friend, and that was my mistake.  And it was something that Jack knew all along.  We can’t be both.  We have to choose, and that’s the point.”

In February, The Washington Post adopted its new slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”  Coined from a quote by Judge Damon J. Keith whilst ruling from the bench of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that warrantless wiretaps were illegal, it’s ironic that Bezos pushed the slogan.  His Amazon empire commands the new technocratic state, accompanied by Facebook, Google and Twitter, the legal counsels of which were grilled by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees for their role in enabling Russian disinformation campaigns in the 2016 U.S. election.

The new technocrats understand page views, they understand ad-based revenue, but do they understand editorial guidance?  Do they understand protecting sources?  Do they respect the role of the “investigative journalist”, a phrase that became a mockery before the blogosphere thanks to the advent of 24 hour ad-funded network news.

Yet in the past week we witnessed the due diligence of editorial guidance in the firing of Brian Ross from ABC; The Washington Post rejected a fake source backed by Project Veritas.  The wheels of justice may be slow, but the hammer-stroke of responsible journalism is swift.