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Sunday, 4 February 2018

Movie review: The Post, Steven Spielberg (2017)

This functional drama had me burping, sighing and hiccupping with contained emotion so that my companion on the day had to ask me at one point if I was alright. I identify as a journalist so the freedom of the press means something both abstract and real to me, and this film embodied an ideal in my mind. I was encouraged by others seated in the penumbra of the Dendy in Newtown who occasionally raised their voices to express approval of the actions of one character, or criticism of another’s.

Here, in a real sense you get two films. One is the story of the so-called Pentagon Papers, the government report on the Vietnam War leaked by Daniel Ellsberg to the press in 1971. The New York Times are the first to get the story but then a New York judge puts a stay on publication of more stories based on the leaked report. The next day, a young woman (Sasha Spielberg) wearing a tie-died skirt drops a package on the desk of Jake (Michael Cyril Creighton), a Washington Post reporter, as he is typing away. When he realises what the shoe box contains he takes it to the office of the newspaper’s editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Simultaneously, reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) is hunting down the man he thinks is the source of the leak, and he eventually finds leaker Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) working at a think tank, where he is employed having left the Rand Corporation, the contractor he had been working for when he photocopied the report. Bagdikian meets with Ellsberg in a motel in Boston and boxes up the photocopied pages, flying them back to Bradlee’s house in New York, where a team of reporters sets about putting the mass of undigested material together into a usable form.

Once they have put together more of the story that the Times had started, they have to get approval from Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), the Post’s owner, to go ahead and publish. Graham had come to her position when her husband Philip Leslie Graham suicided, and she is in the process of taking the company public when the Pentagon Papers’ ethical snarl lands on her desk. She is a leading light in the Washington establishment and rubs shoulders with the rich and famous, including Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the secretary of defense under the two previous presidents who had commissioned the report and who now is set to be deeply embarrassed as the man who had actively pursued the war despite knowing it was a train wreck. At one point, Graham visits McNamara at his home and reasons with him, trying to understand the logic behind the lies that had led to the continuation of the war even when the government – including administrations from Kennedy’s and Johnson’s and now to Nixon’s – had known it to be hopeless. Lives had been lost needlessly, she tells him. He says that the government had commissioned the study “for posterity” and that he was worried that the media would not treat the arguments it deals in with the same care as the report’s authors had used when making them.

There is more of this kind of mealy-mouthed rhetoric from some of the board members at the Post, especially from Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) and Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), who both counsel Graham to hold off publishing out of “prudence”, especially considering the IPO which is still in its cooling-off period, but Graham has answers for all these men, and goes ahead with the story. Bradlee phones the production floor when he gets the nod from Graham, and the presses roll. The next morning, the attorney general phones Bradlee, tells him the Post is breaking the law by publishing the story, and insists that he stops the series, but Bradlee refuses. The matter is then scheduled to go before the Supreme Court, with the Post represented in front of its justices by lawyer Roger Clark (Jesse Plemons), who we had already seen grilling Bagdikian about the source of the leak in the empty newsroom on the night before the story went to print. The justices rule that publication is legal.

Graham’s courage in this drama also forms the core of the second film we get, which is about the place of women in society. In this film, Graham is again the hero because she is somehow emblematic in it of a change in the status of women that had started as part of the post-war counterculture. The woman with the shoe box and the tie-died skirt is a tangible index of this shift.

In the film, we are confronted by some strange customs. At a dinner at Graham’s posh house one night, the men and women are sitting around the table talking and laughing companionably, but once the desert has been eaten and as soon as one man brings up a notionally “hard” subject– in this case foreign policy – one of the women takes it as a cue and suggests that the girls depart. They leave the men to their business and file off into a nearby sitting room to discuss things more appropriate to their station in life, such as fashion and children.

Graham is often shown with children in the film, and this affinity with the young seems to inform her decision to publish the Pentagon Papers because it is always them who fight a country’s wars. In one memorable scene, Graham is waiting in line to get entry to the Supreme Court chamber but a young woman named Nancy (Coral Peña) carrying a box through the lobby recognises her and tells her that there is another entrance for concerned parties. Nancy, it turns out, works for the government, but her brother is still in Vietnam and she says she hopes the Post wins.

There is also a great scene when one of the Post’s reporters, Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon) takes a call from the Supreme Court and announces its decision to the newsroom. She relays the words of one of the justices about the role of the press to serve the governed, not the government, and I totally lost it, tearing up and gurgling noisily in the dark like a potted loon. On the screen in a close-up, Greenfield’s eyes glistened with feeling. Greenfield serves to represent a small cadre of female reporters of the time in the movie and in fact it starts off with Bradlee noisily chewing out the White House to a colleague for stopping Greenfield from covering Nixon’s daughter’s wedding.

I also want to make a comment about the economy that Spielberg and his writers employ when developing character in the film. When I said earlier that it is “functional” I wanted to praise it because of the way that nuance adds richness and meaning to the work, especially through the roles of secondary players like Beebe. While he was broadly against publishing stories based on the leak out of a concern that the bankers underwriting the IPO might withdraw the funding if the paper’s viability was endangered by potential legal action by the government stemming from their publication, Beebe is also shown supporting Graham in a world where women were generally relegated to minor roles. In the meeting with the bankers at the beginning of the film, Beebe uses Graham’s own words to underscore the newspaper’s aims when for the benefit of the men in the room he ties profitability to relevance. She had gone through the words she intended to say to them with Beebe in her luxurious office – located on the same floor as the newsroom but off a special corridor – on the day the meeting took place but confronted by all the dark suits around the heavy wooden table she had simply lost her nerve.

Just as a postscript, I thought it was richly ironic that the studio which produced the film, 20th Century Fox, is affiliated with the retrogressive Fox News that in the US screens such biased conservative nonsense, and with the Murdoch press there which does much the same thing. The Washington Post is now owned by Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, and is routinely one of the outlets that the current Republican demagogue in the White House labels “fake news”. It’s degrading for all journalists to witness Fox stealing the thunder of a much more deserving organisation than its own affiliates.

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