“The Post” is Steven Spielberg’s timely take on watchdog journalism
January 18, 2018
Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg stands in a darkly-lit motel room, surrounded by illegal photocopies of the Pentagon Papers, and asks the reporter in front of him, “Wouldn’t you go to prison to stop this war?” The reporter pauses, thinks. Then, “Theoretically, sure.”
Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” shows what happens when the threat of censorship becomes a looming reality. Starring the incomparable Meryl Streep as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and Tom “America’s Dad” Hanks as Post editor Ben Bradlee, the movie chronicles the paper’s relentless pursuit of the truth regarding government involvement in Vietnam.
Despite opposition from a Nixon White House and a court injunction, Post reporters compromised their paper and risked jail time by covering the leak. In these fraught times where “fake news” is the current administration’s catchphrase, it’s easy to understand why the film is being hailed as a fitting parallel to the journalism of today.
From its romanticized display of rolling printing presses to impassioned speeches on why they must publish, damn it, Spielberg wants you to revel in the virtue of their mission. There’s nothing subtle about the John Williams score swelling as hippie feminists stare at Graham in awe when she walks out of the courthouse, the champion of underestimated women. But what the movie lacks in nuance it makes up in message.
Exposing injustice is the essence of patriotism. This truth is what drives the Post reporters to publish and what marks them equal parts heroes and rebels. It’s an important message to remember when criticism is often dangerously conflated with treason. Nixon, fully in the embrace of paranoia, certainly saw oppositional coverage as a Judas like betrayal.
But whereas 2015’s “Spotlight” shined through its methodical study of day-to-day journalism, “The Post” is more interested in ideals. It wants viewers invested in its characters without ever fully committing to showing us the whole picture. There’s something superficial about it’s setting, almost as if you could transplant the characters into any power struggle featuring underdogs. It’s a shame because journalists at their best are social detectives and the most riveting scenes of the movie draw from the tension of unraveling the case.
Interestingly, the film does show something that might be unsavory to audiences: the thrill of out-scooping the competition. This is Bradlee’s main motivator and he isn’t shy about his intentions to beat The New York Times. His less-than-righteous goals play into the film’s mirroring of the Pentagon Papers and whatever scandal of the week the current White House has been bringing us.
Credibility is the number one concern when it comes to news and blatant ambition such as Bradlee’s doesn’t do anything to assuage those fears.
As much as we might want to romanticize our work, sometimes journalism doesn’t hang on a moral cause.
Sometimes you just really want to beat a competitor to the punch. Sometimes there’s deadlines and blank space to fill.
But that doesn’t make the process of documenting and questioning journalists do any less central to the democratic tenets of this nation (or any less functional, if you want to be utilitarian about it).
Viewers who know a little something about the history behind the Pentagon Papers know the actual key player was The New York Times.
They broke the story first. And the story the Post did break—Watergate—arguably would have been a better fit for a film about the Post’s debut on the national stage.
So, the film begs the questions: “Why this paper? Why this event?”
The answer can be found at the end of the film, as the newsroom quietly awaits the Supreme Court’s decision and a woman relays the opinion of Justice Hugo Black. He wrote that the purpose of the press is “to serve the governed, not the governors.”
Because censoring the media is ultimately a bigger act of treason then daring to question the status quo. The press is as much a part of checks and balances as Congress or the Supreme Court.
“The Post” is not Spielberg’s finest work and, despite stellar performances by the cast, this isn’t the kind of movie that’ll be remembered two award seasons from now. But it’s message will endure.
As long the media continues to push the leaders we are supposed to trust, the fourth estate will exist—truth pursued, wherever it leads.
Contact Perla Luna at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.