The Post: A film review

unnamedI saw The Post last night at a packed theatre near Boston.  I don’t go to the cinema for a picture show very often given my schedule, but when I do, I try to be as selective as possible. I really couldn’t pass up a film about the Washington Post and the Pentagon Papers.  I’m old enough to remember the Vietnam War and nightly news coverage.  And like most of the other baby boomers in the audience, I have fond memories of reading the newspaper.  In my hometown, there were two major newspapers; one delivered in the morning and the other in the evening; my family subscribed to both.  As a youth, I was even a paperboy for a few years with my own route in the neighborhood where I lived. I delivered the newspaper on my bicycle and in a convertible MG midget when I was old enough to drive.  I remember there always being someone reading the newspaper in the house and there being pages strewn on the couch and coffee table as kind of permanent fixtures.

The film plot was fairly straightforward.  The New York Times had just published a series of articles from a leaked classified study commissioned by the U.S. government on the U.S. role in Indochina from World War II to the late ’60s. I believe Bob McNamara was its principal author.  Stunningly, the study concluded that the chances of winning the Vietnam War were next to nothing. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the document to the Times happened to be a friend of a Post employee played by Bob Odenkirk, of Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad fame.  He obtained the documents from Ellsberg after the Times had been hit with a court injunction on national security grounds to stop publishing the leaks from the study.  The Post, then owned by Cathyrn Graham, played by Meryl Streep, had to decide whether to publish portions of the papers they had obtained from Ellsberg, during this injunction period knowing it would be in violation of the law.  I won’t tell you whether they did or not – you’ll have to see the film to find out, but I will say there was a lot of drama around what to do, complicated by the fact that the Washington Post was in the process of becoming a publically traded entity, to try to become a nationally viable newspaper.

The acting was serviceable in all respects; even understated.  No character dominated the action or stood out as the star.  Meryl Streep probably captured Cathyrn Graham exactly as she was, somewhat overwhelmed with the responsibility of taking over a newspaper that had been in her husband’s family for years, but courageous particularly in the face of the male-dominated newspaper business. Though she was depicted as more of a socialite, by the end of the movie, she had evolved into a significant feminist influence. Tom Hanks, who played the editor Ben Bradlee, was an important force and one who Graham clearly trusted.  Their on-screen chemistry was not magical, but appropriate for an editor-owner relationship.

My quibble with the film was the shots of protests and other street scenes.  I did not get the feeling of the ’70s which seemed inauthentic and staged.  The hippies were too clean.  The smokers looked like they had not yet learned how to smoke.  The cars were not representative of what one might have seen on the streets at that time – like the hippies, too clean; straight out of central casting.

What makes the film compelling is not the acting or the cinematography but the subject matter.  Just as then, freedom of speech is under assault by an authoritarian President who is not fit for office.  Trump’s endless attacks on the press are concerning.  He has been trying to bring down the press because he believes it provides too many checks on his power.  He fears reporters and authors, not to mention the special prosecutor, have gotten too close to exposing his misdeeds and possible crimes during the campaign and as President.  He lashes out with the phrase “fake news” anytime something is published about him that he doesn’t like.  He has repeatedly called reporters awful people; he has called the Times the “failing” New York Times even though it is thriving; he just threatened lawsuits against an author and publisher for an unflattering book about himself and his presidency.  And his threat to strengthen libel laws is clearly an attempt to silence his critics.  His dictatorial style cannot be tolerated, and our free press must continue to call him out and not be intimidated.  He may have bullied his way into the presidency, but now he must function within a constitutional democracy with checks and balances. The Supreme Court upheld the power of the first amendment, ruling in favor of the press publishing the Pentagon Papers which ultimately led to the end of the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency.  Trump, are you listening?

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