THE POST CELEBRATES MORE THAN FREEDOM OF THE PRESS
When The Post begins, Daniel Ellsberg (played by Matthew Rhys) is with a unit of soldiers in Vietnam in 1966, finding out that the Viet Cong rule the country in the night. One day, while flying home on Air Force One, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) summons him to the first class section to ask him whether the war is getting better or worse. When Ellsburg answers “the same,” McNamara then tells his White House interlocutor that the reply means that things are getting worse. However, when the plane reaches Washington, McNamara tells the press that things are going “better than expected.”
The film then pivots to 1971 with a scene at the offices of the Washington Post, where employees in the newsroom seem constantly on edge to get the news out daily under the supervision of Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). The owner, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) contemplates listing the paper on the New York Stock Exchange. She has inherited ownership from her husband, Phil Graham, who died in 1963, and she is not the hardboiled owner that filmviewers might expect. A woman at the head of a powerful business is a rarity at the time: She is the only woman on the Board of Directors, and men are accustomed to talking separately from women after home banquets, though men are polite around her. However, she is about to make the most consequential decision for the company and indeed for the United States if not the world.
Meanwhile, Richard Nixon (voiced by Curzon Dobell) is angry at the Post, which has been reporting problems with his administration. Nixon is so angry that Post reporters are banned from covering the wedding of Nixon’s daughter. Then one day the New York Times comes out with the scoop of the century—publishing some pages from The Pentagon Papers after Ellsberg makes photocopies of the secret volumes that were once ordered written by McNamara for academics in the future (as filmviewers later learn when Graham confronts her longtime friend McNamara). Although Bradlee finds a way to cover the wedding, he is flustered by the scoop. Then, all of a sudden, a packet arrives in the newsroom, containing some pages from the Papers, whereupon Bradlee dispatches a reporter to ascertain the source—a reporter who knew Ellsberg many years ago. Very soon, the Nixon administration takes the New York Times to court, and the judge issues an injunction, preventing the release of any more of the Papers on grounds of national security. Now Bradlee wants to publish what he has acquired, yet Post investors and lawyers warn Kay Graham that the paper could face bankruptcy if the court makes a similar ruling. (Even after she agrees, they try to get her to change her mind.) But the press rolls, and the Washington Post then becomes a national if not international newspaper. A second judge upholds the right of the Post, and the case is won in the Supreme Court, with one reporter reading the decision’s key phrase aloud to the newsroom: “Newspapers are for the governed, not the government.”
The film ends in 1974, when burglars are sent by Nixon to steal papers from the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate building.
Parallels with the Trump administration are planted throughout the film. One comment is that the Pentagon Papers revealed that all presidents from Truman to Nixon lied to the American people about what they were doing in regard to Vietnam, a war that filmviewers are told was 10% about backing South Vietnam, 20% about stopping communism, and 70% avoiding worldwide humiliation for losing a war—an observation clearly applicable to Afghanistan today. The Supreme Court quote is obviously directed to Donald Trump and to FoxNews. The decision to include the illegal Watergate break-in as an epilog directs the focus to the hacking of the Democratic Party’s emails during the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. The almost absent role of women in all-male boardrooms is yet another theme. That there is no equivalent to Ellsberg today to counter lies about Afghanistan and North Korea is implicit as well.
Over the years, the Political Film Society has nominated many films for awards with Steven Spielberg as the director. The year 2017 is no exception. The Post has been nominated as the best film exposé of 2017 as well as best film on democracy, human rights, and peace. MH