Tuesday, 6 March 2018


When looking at The Post, it's essential to keep the film's title in mind. Although it opens with a bravura scene of a fire-fight in the Vietnam jungle, a deathly chaos whose tracer lights illuminate Daniel Ellsberg's experience, it is not a film about Vietnam. Neither, despite the central presence of Robert McNamara as a catalyst for Ellsberg's decision to take the government's lies public, is it a movie about the Pentagon Papers. It is about the Washington Post, and its ascent to a position of national prominence alongside (or just behind) the New York Times. I've seen it said that the opening firefight serves as a visual metaphor for the Post's battles with the government (and the Times), but that idea, like the movie itself, does a huge disservice to Ellsberg. That's because the real centre of The Post is Katharine Graham's internal battle to assume control of her father's and husband's paper, and the means through which she is able to begin to enact her vision of being a major, quality daily. The problem is that Graham's story runs along a parallel track with the paper's search to beat the Times' exclusive, and Ben Bradlee's competitive journalistic drive keeps the action moving.

To his credit, Spielberg manages to bring the two strands together with some aplomb, at the moment Graham gives the order to 'print'. Her struggle is the more subtle, and repetitive, and it is difficult for Meryl Streep, as Graham to convey the depth of her insecurities, though she does well with what is presented. Graham's father, Eugene Meyer, had bought the bankrupt Post in the 1930s. When he retired, he made Kataharine's husband, Phil Graham, his successor. Graham was a manic depressive, and we learn that he killed himself. But part of his problem was his resentment of having been the son-in-law who rises, part that the Post was still a backwater paper in a company town, and he was at times abusive to Kay and the children: not least for her Jewishness. This backstory is instructive, because none of it is given away, instead Streep looks lovingly at Phil's photo. But if you're aware of it you can see better the roots of the insecurities which Streep delineates.

That she was taking the Post public at the very moment the government exercised prior restraint by getting an injunction against the Times' publication of the Pentagon Papers is true, and it is rightly presented as a Rubicon moment for her. He was risking her family's legacy, and the battle is encapsulated well by Tracy Letts, in another of his good-guy roles as Fritz Beebe, the family lawyer and chairman of the board versus Bradley Whitford, in a remarkable performance of unwillingly restrained anger and resentment, as board-member Arthur Parsons.

Graham also had her Washington social whirl, in which she was still playing the traditional wifely role, to consider. And it is an underplayed moment of decision when she sits down with McNamara (a brilliantly accurate performance from Bruce Greenwood, getting just the sort of moral incomprehension McNamara showed in The Fog of War) to tell him she will be publishing the Papers. Ironically, in later life Graham would seek similar injunctions or take other actions against her putative biographers.

In a sense, when it comes to the newspaper side of the story, The Post is a cross between The Fog Of War and All The President's Men on the one hand, and on the other the classic newspaper drama, the kind of modern version we saw in, say, Ron Howard's The Paper. In fact, the most thrilling scenes in the movie are those that lovingly follow the dynamic of setting linotype, and then the rush of the presses as the papers roll off. The latter is something we've seen repeatedly, but watching the drama of the pages themselves getting set was literally inspiring.

All The President's Men lurks in the background. It's amazing to realise that the Post's first tranche of the Pentagon Papers literally fell on the desk of a reporter (who tellingly remains anonymous and excluded from the story itself) just as Deep Throat appeared in Bob Woodward's ear (at least as the movie version would have you believe). Bradlee's editorial ability to run with found gold is an important one, but it was the other Ben, Ben Bagdikian (played with a nice edge by Bob Odenkirk) who actually tracked down Ellsberg, whom he'd known at Rand, and got the Post their scoop. Which of course would not have been a scoop at all had not the Times been injuncted against printing; but of course as the film shows, the Post's running with their story opened the nation's floodgates.

Jason Robards' Oscar-winning feet-on-the-desk performance as Bradlee hangs over Tom Hanks too, but Spielberg and Hanks choose to play Bradlee as a sort of middle-class suburban businessman, closer to William Holden in The Corporation. The lemonade stand scenes remind us that Spielberg does like to frame the world from a child's view, but Hanks' Bradlee shows none of the society nous of his Boston Brahmin upbringing—Bradlee had come to the Post by facilitating Phil Graham's purchase of Newsweek, and was a mover in society almost as much as Graham. Kay Graham gets it right when she questions Bradlee's actually closeness to JFK himself (Bradlee's own book about it, Conversations With Kennedy, is an effort to convince himself as much as the reader that it was more) but Bradlee was also close to James Angleton of the CIA; his wife Tony Pinchot was the sister of Mary Pinchot Meyer, married to Cord Meyer (no relation to the Post Meyers), another top-man at CIA; it isn't coincidental that Meyer was the brains behind the CIA's Operation Mockingbird, by which it acquired assets within the major media. When Mary (by then divorced from Cord) was murdered it was Bradlee who helped Angleton find and destroy her diary, in which her own relationship with Kennedy was supposedly detailed. But even Bradlee's Georgetown townhouse is made to look like something from a suburban neighbourhood; Ben Bradlee is your good American Joe, pace Private Ryan.

In the end it's the Times that gets the media attention, with CL 'Punch' Sulzberger, like Graham the heir to the paper, and AM 'Abe' Rosenthal, its managing editor, facing the press when the Supreme Court decision in the papers' favour is handed down. Michael Stuhlbarg's caricature of Rosenthal (whose column, On My Mind, was universally derided as 'Out Of My Mind' in the days when he stepped down from editorship) is amusing to the point of cruelty. When we hear Nixon's own voice on the tapes, I was a little surprised there were no tirades against the 'Jews', Tricky Dick saw both the Times and Post as being Jewish family affairs.

Spielberg ends the film with an ironic reference to never going through this again, when we all know that Watergate, which firmly put the Post on the dias with the Times, was just around the corner. He does another re-enactment of Frank Wills' discovery of the Watergate burglars—remember those were the same burglars whose ransacking of Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office got the government's prosecution of the actual leaker thrown out of court. Spielberg likes to end his films with none to subtle conclusions, think of the graveyard scenes in Private Ryan or Schindler's List. The fate of Daniel Ellsberg, of course, is feed for another movie.

There is an obvious correlative to our present times, Donald Trump and Fake News and the less stirring performance of our leading papers in their age of declining relevance. This was illustrated in passing by Spielberg. Ironically, it is the best moment in the entire film, an actual news clip of CBS telelvision's Daniel Schorr explaining what exactly the government was doing by taking the Times to court to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers. Schorr does it in 30 seconds or so. It covers the issues, explains the legal tactic, and sets the stage for the movie better than it could do for itself. You can't see any of our knights of the makeup room on television doing that today.

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