During the Vietnam war the Secretary of State at the time, Robert McNamara ordered an extensive study done by various academics as to all of the American operations in the area at the time. The intent was to create a document for future administrations to help guide policy. In 1969 the document was leaked to the NYTimes who started publishing stories which indicated that the Nixon administration had been systematically lying to the American public as to the extent and breadth of operations and that there were many in the administration, including McNamara himself who had concluded that victory in the region was impossible.
The government issued an injunction against the Times, silencing them from publishing and so The Washington Post began publishing stories on the papers as well. The Post, directed by Steven Spielberg, is the story of that newspaper acquisition of the documents and internal struggle to decide whether or not to take on the US government and publish. Meryl Streep plays the owner of the paper, Kay Graham and Tom Hanks is her lead editor. It’s a gorgeously shot, terribly well-acted movie that you’ve seen many times before.
Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep have all made better movies than this. That isn’t much of a criticism of course, given those three are responsible for some of the greatest films of all time. Here Spielberg and Hanks are both pretty good, which is again better than most anyone’s best days. Spielberg’s movies are so ubiquitous and a part of our culture that I don’t really notice his style anymore when I watch his movies. They just look and feel the way that movies are supposed to feel. And Hanks, of course, has weight and gravitas as Ben Bradlee though later when I watch a Tom Hanks movie I tend to just see Tom Hanks, not the character he’s playing.
Bradlee is steadfastly confident in his belief of the Post’s duty to the public and to the truth. But within the boundaries of the film, that is all he ever is, a catalyst for the plot. Bradlee wants to publish the Pentagon Papers because it is morally right, whatever impact that may have on the Post. The film’s main character then is the Post’s owner Katherine Graham, played by Streep. The Washington Post was purchased by her father, who left it to her husband when he passed, and not her. Something that Katherine didn’t think twice about as things were just different in the 40s and 50s. After her husband’s suicide the paper passed to her, having never held a job in her life.
Katherine’s character must learn to navigate male-only boardrooms and find the strength to lead during one of the most significant journalistic crises in US history. And Streep does a wonderful job elevating what might otherwise be pedestrian material. Unlike Hanks, she disappears into the role of Kate and is what makes watching Kay’s ‘finding my strength’ journey fun to watch. Because outside of Streep, the whole story is so squarely on the nose, with long tracking shots that follow her from a roomful of women to a board room full of men.
The last tracking shot leaving the courthouse made me roll my eyes a bit, as Streep walks through a crowd of young women who all look at her appreciatively. While The Post is rock-solid good, you’ve seen this movie before, and done better. Newsroom films about historical events can lean into the noble journalist cliche or into the complexity and intrigue of history. The Post leans into the former and because of that, you could swap out the Pentagon Papers for Watergate or McCarthy or a political event they made up and you’d have essentially the same movie. Which was disappointing because this is such an interesting part of American history. For a much more fascinating take on that checkout Errol Morris’ documentary The Fog of War, in which the whole movie is conducted as an interview with McNamara himself.
It’s one of my favorite documentaries But because of The Post volume of cliche, it feels to me more like activist marketing than just good storytelling – a Hollywood message movie for our current times. That’s not necessarily a bad thing when it’s done with this caliber of artists but while I think a defense of the role a free press plays in our society is important, I also think the movie misses the point as a critique of contemporary culture. There’s a scene in The Post where Tom Hanks scoffs at the idea of creating more editorial.
Today we are nothing short of drowning in it. Where 50 years ago a handful of titans in journalism were our sources for truth and the first check against the powerful, the digital information age has brought a mass proliferation of voices. Cacophonous and loud, all climbing over each other to battle for our attention mostly by appealing to our basest instinct for ideological validation. We all want to feel like we’re in the right and today it’s very easy to surround ourselves with the agreement. Consequently, the very definition of the word News has been redefined, from “noteworthy information about recent events” to “information I agree with.” And that has made it profoundly simple for the powerful to take away the one thing that this check against them needs as oxygen to survive: credibility.
In 1971 the Nixon administration filed an injunction against the Times and sought one against The Post. Today, Nixon could’ve just leaned into a microphone and uttered the words fake news. When he did a dozen media outlets would start combing the Times reporters Twitter feeds for contradictions. While others scrutinized paper itself searching busily for patterns of bias to confirm for their own consumers the things that they already believed.
There may never be another Edward R Murrow or Robert Frost to speak truth to power on our behalf because the truth is today now relevant to the tribe. No single Ben Bradlee can face this tidal wave for us anymore. It’s on us to listen critically to this noise that erodes our rational skepticism and fans the flames of our easy and default cynicism. On us to break our fixation away from the same constellation we fixate on every evening and consider the whole night sky. Because if we don’t do that, and the people to whom we give the power to bring everything crashing to the ground, maybe, it’s on us. “Cassius is right. The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars but in ourselves. Goodnight, and good luck.”