Five Stars for Us! A Review of Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Post’

I was just four months old when the Pentagon Papers were published in 1971, but I remember very distinctly the mixed emotions that ran through my mind when I first clapped eyes on that historic edition of the New York Times in my local library. For here was everything I loathed and loved in one incredible revelation! On the one hand, imperialism, war and corruption. On the other, the First Amendment and the Fourth Estate. “Mother,” I said, as she swiped the paper from the hands of a startled pensioner, “Mother, darling – mark this day! For though a dark cloud in the progress of our species, it has about it a silver lining that in future years will be as a beacon to good men and women of the press the world over! Dry your eyes, mother mine. Here, use my handkerchief.” I was a precocious child.

It would be nice, would it not, to rewrite history in a way that made ourselves central to the story, and that made us appear more relevant and prescient and brilliant than we actually are. It would be ludicrous as well, of course, though that doesn’t stop some people doing it, especially those who write for a living. I’ve grumbled before that the “media culpa” following the 2016 US election disguised a deep strain of self-congratulation, as the dead-tree press and major stations affected to glorify themselves with faint praise. (“If only we’d had our game-face on, this tragedy might never have happened!”) Now I must return to the subject, one Steven Spielberg having entered the field with a film that polishes the MSM’s image to a high and self-reflecting shine. The Post is rather good, as it happens; but it’s also very, very bad.

The key points in the narrative are a matter of historical record, so I imagine we can dispense with the spoiler alerts. In 1969 military analyst Daniel Ellsberg made photocopies of ‘the Pentagon Papers’, aka United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense. The documents revealed, inter alia, that the US government had lied “systematically” about the ongoing war in Vietnam and that it had secretly spread the war to Cambodia and Laos. Ellsberg passed the documents to Neil Sheehan, a reporter for the New York Times, and on June 13, 1971, the Times published the first of nine excerpts from the Papers, together with editorial commentaries. On June 15, the Nixon administration sought, and was granted, a court injunction preventing further publication, so Ellsberg passed copies of the documents to Ben Bagdikian at the Washington Post. After much agonising and internal argument, and in defiance of the Attorney General, the Post began running its own series of articles on the Papers on June 18. On June 30, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the New York Times, putting the Post (and other papers) in the clear.

The bulk of The Post takes place in the period between the injunction and the Supreme Court ruling. It centres on the Post’s owner, Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), and her relationship with its storied editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Bradlee wants to publish, obvs. But Graham is facing pressure from the board not to tread on any powerful toes ahead of the newspaper’s Initial Public Option. She’s also under pressure from friends, some of whom are directly responsible for the suppression of information revealed in the Papers. (Robert McNamara, ably played by Bruce Greenwood, is one such.) But publish she does, risking lucre and liberty, and the wait for the Supreme Court decision begins. When it comes down, the First Amendment is invoked, nostrils flare, and eyes moisten. And then a security guard in the Watergate building walks in on something kinda fishy …

Eternal vigilance blah blah blah … Still, I rather relished that ending – a nod not only to the Post’s finest hour, but also to its timeless representation in Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men. The Post is slicker than ATPM, and heavier on the explication. But it’s also got a similar feel, with the ratty office and the cigarette fog and the incessant clackclackclackclack of the Remingtons. (“Stop playing chopsticks!” shouts Bradlee at one point, at an intern with two index fingers on the keys.) The film looks great, and is acted well. It’s a pleasant way to pass two hours.

But its messaging is all over the shop. Spielberg has said in interviews that he conceived of the film as a commentary on Trump’s incessant bullying of the press, and this accords with the focus of the film, which is not the Pentagon Papers themselves, but Graham’s “brave” decision to publish them. But this is a ludicrous analogy, surely. Notwithstanding his desire to “take a very long look” at US libel law (he can look all he wants: he ain’t gonna change it), Trump’s attacks on the MSM amount to little more than hot air, while the only scandals likely to unseat him are the subject of a Special Counsel Investigation on which the press is welcome to report all it wants. It isn’t Trump’s “Fake News Awards” that have weakened “serious” media; if anything, Trump has been good for business (subscriptions are up at the Post and the Times). No, the weakness of the MSM is part of a more fundamental phenomenon: the slow fragmentation of a mass culture once dominated by a few media outlets, broadly centrist in their political outlook and only very occasionally minded to put an incumbent president to the sword. As for the First Amendment – puh-leez! The fact that Trump can now appeal to media sources beyond the MSM is a function of the First Amendment: the provision that allowed the Times and the Post to publish Ellsberg’s revelations is the same one that allowed Steve Bannon and his goons to spread their bile at Breitbart News. Oh, and it’s also the one that allowed the Post to call for Edward Snowden to stand trial for espionage charges in the US. How’s that for journalistic solidarity?

The Post, then, is yet another chapter in the liberal self-mythologization that began in November 2016, as a response to the Trump insurgency – a mythologization that denies any responsibility for the rise to power of the Cheeto Jesus, preferring to double down on its message of individual brilliance and bravery and greater gender diversity in the top jobs. It’s an ensemble that in the liberal mind represents the true America, which will, nay must, return to its senses and renew its subscription to the Washington Post, or one of the other halo brands, before settling back down to the important business of electing Chelsea Clinton to the presidency. That the Post is now owned by one Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the universe and one happy to treat his employees like shit, does not register as an irony any more than Graham’s strike-breaking activities afford a mention in Spielberg’s film. Why would it, when we know that money, like virtue, trickles down from the beautiful people?

Spielberg’s casting of Hanks and Streep, both of whom have amplified his characterisation of the film in press interviews, is in this sense a theatrical coup. Streep especially is now solidly associated with the so-called anti-Trump resistance, and one of a growing number of celebrities whose life experience and sense of virtue is taken to be generalisable to the rest of us. The Streep/Graham character is clearly conceived as an avatar for the “lean-in” feminism of Clinton and her analogues. There is mansplaining and manspreading aplenty in the film – Bradley Whitford, as Arthur Parsons, nearly does the fricken splits – and I’m sure there was in real life, too. But to elevate this Kissinger-kissing blueblood to the status of a feminist hero strikes me as a little, well, rich. At one point an impromptu female guard of honour forms on the steps of the Supreme Court: she walks through it like Moses parting the Red Sea.

Well, I think I’ve exercised my right to free speech quite enough for one day. Suffice it to say that a decent film is ruined by an indecent desire to draw a thick black line from a criminal war to the lunatic currently cluttering up the Oval Office, and that the effect of this hysterical connection is to boost the self-esteem of the MSM at the price of turning one of its most illustrious moments into a branding exercise for a dying media model. “Jefferson just turned in his grave” says one character, upon hearing the news of the Nixon injunction. Mate, he’s spinning like a pig on a spit.