By Dr. David C. Simmons
Warning: Contains 46-year-old spoilers from history. Do not read until after seeing the film.
Steven Spielberg’s The Post is not only the first awards film fast-tracked into production during the Trump administration, it’s also the most important film of the year. It reminds us of three important things.
1. Why women’s voices need to be heard.
The Post’s screenplay was originally written by 31-year-old first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah. It was purchased by Amy Paschal, the head of Sony, who later hired Josh Singer (Spotlight) to do some rewrites. The story focuses on an important woman who has been virtually ignored by historians—Kay Graham, the owner of the Washington Post—during the era of the Pentagon Papers.
In one of her early scenes, Kay Graham (the masterful Meryl Streep) participates in a board meeting of her newspaper, otherwise comprised entirely of men. A question is asked of the table, but as Graham answers it, she is completely ignored. A male board member stumbles around, eventually calculating the same information, and is immediately listened to. It’s a situation many women have become familiar with.
Yet the time comes when Graham is the one who has to make the decision about whether or not to publish the Pentagon Papers, after a federal district judge forbids the New York Times from doing so. Both the legal team and the head of the board insist she not do it. She, Ben Bradlee (the editor of the paper, played by a gruff Tom Hanks), and others could go to prison. The paper, once owned by her father, and later her husband, could be ruined. It’s one of the most thrilling moments of the film as Spielberg’s camera swirls around Graham as if echoing her own swirling thoughts. Streep delivers the tentative uncertainty that Graham must have been feeling when she bravely puts the good of the country before her own safety and stammers: “Go…let’s, let’s go…let’s publish.”
Later, Ben Bradlee’s wife, Tony (an amenable Sarah Paulson) reminds her husband that Graham was not only courageous, but had to be so while also being undervalued by society for being a woman: “When you’re told time and time again that you’re not good enough, that your opinion doesn’t matter as much. When they don’t just look past you when to them you’re not even there. When that’s been your reality for so long, it’s hard not to let yourself think it’s true. So to make this decision, to risk her fortune and the company that’s been her entire life? Well, I think that’s brave.”
The Post shows how important women’s voices are, and why institutions should listen to them.
2. How we need to hold corrupt, authoritarian governments accountable.
The film also shows how to act morally in a system that is not.
Early on, military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) hears Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) tell his staff that the U.S. is losing the war in Vietnam, right before giving a statement to the press that’s the complete opposite. Ellsberg’s conscience tells him that the truth (this war continues because no administration wants to be the first to lose a war) needs to be brought to light to save American lives.
A Post reporter, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), eventually discovers that Ellsberg is the leak that gave the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. After tracking him down and receiving a complete copy of the papers, he wonders why Ellsberg would risk his freedom to do this. Ellsberg responds: “Wouldn’t you to go prison to stop this war?”
There are several lines in the film that sound like they were written about our current administration. Kay Graham says, “The Nixon White House is nothing if not vindictive.”
In a chilling moment, Ben Bradlee says of the Nixon administration, “The way they lied—those days have to be over. We have to be the check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable, my God, who will?”
After the screening I saw in Destin, the audience clapped and cheered. There’s a feeling in the air that if ever there were a time to hold governments accountable for their misdeeds, it’s now.
3. Why we need a free press.
As the founding fathers understood, the most effective way to hold a government accountable to the people is with a free press. In The Post, we hear some actual tapes of Nixon’s phone calls. He describes the New York Times as “enemies,” forbids any employee from the Washington Post from ever again being admitted inside the White House, and seeks to prosecute reporters and their sources. It all seems vaguely similar to the current administration, which, in addition to these tactics, also attempts the new technique of eroding the public’s faith in the free press.
The Post strikes back against this. At one point in the film, an anonymous young woman delivers the first pages of the Pentagon Papers to the Washington Post in a nondescript box. Spielberg’s camera follows that box, without a cut, as it careens through a maze of typing newspaper reporters—a beacon of truth wading through a sea of noise.
Upon receipt of the papers, the newspaper’s chairman of the board, Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), tries to convince Ben Bradlee not to publish them: “If the government wins and we’re convicted, the Washington Post, as we know it, will cease to exist.” Bradlee responds, “If we live in a world where the government can tell us what we can and can’t print, then the Washington Post, as we know it, has already ceased to exist.”
After Kay Graham’s decision to publish is made, Spielberg crosscuts dramatically between the typesetting of the press and Bradlee’s comment to Graham: “We could all go to prison.” Spielberg crosscuts again between the ink flowing down the printing chambers and the newspaper’s legal team arriving in the middle of the night, trying to block the printing. Although the publishing of the Pentagon Papers almost didn’t happen, the film’s editing implies that truth eventually will flow forth.
As Justice Hugo Black’s opinion in the Supreme Court’s ruling (of the right of the press to publish the Pentagon Papers) reminds us: “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.”
Such reminders could not be more timely today.