This Spielberg film is brilliant, historical and currently relevant all at once
“When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all of the other liberties we hold dear are endangered” – Christopher Dodd
“What I’m thinking about more and more these days is simply the importance of transparency, and Jefferson’s saying that he’d rather have a free press without a government than a government without a free press” – Esther Dyson
Steven Spielberg’s The Post opens at a time when Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Ryhs) is in Vietnam, as an observer attached to a combat unit. Fast forward to 1971 and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks – Bridge of Spies) is worried. Neil Sheehan (Justin Swain), brilliant investigative journalist for the New York Times hasn’t been seen in weeks. That probably means he is working on something big. He sets out to find out just what Sheehan is working on and to try to scoop the Times.
What Sheehan is working on is now known as The Pentagon Papers. It was originally titled “United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense” and Ellsberg had access to the copies of this large document being kept at the Rand Corporation. The New York Times beat The Post and everyone else to the punch, publishing their first story on the subject on June 13, 1971.
It was a turbulent time for The Post. Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep – August: Osage County) has been the paper’s publisher since her husband Phil had committed suicide eight years earlier. She is in the process of taking the paper public with an Initial Public Offering (IPO). One piece of the boilerplate contract language in the deal allows the investment bank handling the offering to rescind the issue within the first week due to a major negative event that could jeopardize the paper’s financial health.
After the first New York Times story on the subject, Ben Bradlee wants the Pentagon Papers very badly. Especially after the Nixon Administration goes to court and wins a preliminary injunction barring the Times from publishing more of the Pentagon Papers until another legal proceeding. He asks Katherine Graham to get a copy of the papers from her good friend Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood – The Place Beyond the Pines), the former Secretary of Defense who had been the one to order the study.
Ultimately The Post obtains a copy directly from Daniel Ellsberg, who is located by Ben Bagdikian – (Bob Odenkirk – Nebraska), assistant managing editor of The Post. They’d met years earlier in California. With over 4,000 pages of Pentagon Papers in two cardboard boxes, Bagdikian rushes back to Ben Bradlee’s house. There, they and other key members of The Post write their story.
Then comes the key question. Do they publish? The lawyers say no. Katherine Graham’s advisors, Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts) in particular are telling her not to. Ben Bradlee and his people are urging her to go ahead. The stakes are enormous as publishing could cause the IPO to go awry. After they publish comes another court battle and then the final showdown in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
While Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks almost always generate Oscar buzz with their performances, their combine work here is very good but perhaps not up to that level. Bob Odenkirk is spectacular in his portrayal of the rumpled and altogether ordinary looking survivor of the Armenian Genocide. Sarah Paulson and Allison Brie both shine in small supporting roles.
USA Today reports that Steven Spielberg said this regarding the making of The Post.. “When I read the first draft of the script, this wasn’t something that could wait three years or two years — this was a story I felt we needed to tell today.” He was right on the money. This film tells us about one of the most important moments in the history of a free press, and it is a reminder that more than ever, we need the press to remain free of government interference/infringement. But anything I could write on this subject would come nowhere near to articulating that fact as the opinion of Justice Hugo Black in his concurring opinion with the decision of the United States Supreme Court in the case New York Times vs the United States. You can read his complete opinion here. This particular passage says it all:
“In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.”