"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Post

In Spielberg’s The Post (2017), the fateful decision to publish portions of the Pentagon Papers centers on Katharine Graham’s being willing to rebuff her newspaper’s lawyers, who represent the company’s financial interests, in favor of Ben Bradlee’s argument that free speech of the press as a check on government in a viable democracy—the company’s mission—is of overriding importance. As important as this critical decision was historically, I submit that the film allots too much attention to the decision and even the relationship between Graham and Bradlee at the expense of other deserving matters.

The film gives scant attention to Daniel Ellsberg, the former Marine and military analyst who “brought the Pentagon Papers to The Times, and later to The Post, motivated by an all-American notion that the nation’s citizen’s had the right to know more about what was going on half a world away in a war financed by their tax dollars and fought by so many of their children.”[1] The script does not include, for example, his statement, “Taking an oath as a public servant does not mean keeping secrets or obeying the president—it’s respecting the Constitution.”[2] The viewer sees little if any of the internal struggle that must have led to his conclusion.
Secondly, that Ellsberg first brought portions of the Pentagon’s study to The New York Times is shown in the film mainly through Ben Bradlee’s competitive disappointment rather than showing more of what was going on at The Times. In fact, whereas Bradlee and Graham could look to The Times as a precedent, Arthur O. Sulzberger, publisher of The Times, had no forerunner and thus “took on far more risk,” James Goodale, the paper’s in-house counsel at the time, has written.[3] “It’s as though Hollywood had made a movie about the Times’s triumphant role in Watergate,” he added.[4] Neil Sheehan, the lead reporter on the story, has said in retirement that Sulzberger “was absolutely heroic in publishing the Pentagon Papers. . . . He was all alone in making his decision.”[5]
Thirdly, and most importantly, although the film gives viewers the “important lesson . . . that, in both cases, family-led newspapers placed their journalistic missions ahead of business imperatives. And they did so under intense governmental pressure,” scant attention is allotted to the contents of the articles themselves.[6] Little is revealed other than that administrations going back to Truman’s lied to the American people regarding American involvement and prospects in Vietnam. The film highlights the lying by showing Nixon’s Secretary of State blatantly lie to the press on his view of the prospects for winning the war. The viewer is left with the image of a misled public that is nonetheless supposed to hold its government accountable. Even so, the film does not convey much of what the Pentagon study found. The scattered, cryptic references made at Bradlee’s house are not sufficient, given the potential for informing the viewers, and thus a sizable portion of the American people, on just how bad the lies were by spelling them out.
The medium of film, as well as its popular situs in modern society, can handle making “deep” philosophical issues transparent. In the case of The Post, the increasing power of the American presidency, referred to academically as the imperial presidency, could have received attention, as could have the particular cover-ups by Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon—each lie specified rather than glided over. It was not just Richard Nixon, who can be easily relegated as the crook who occupied the White House for a term and a half. That several presidents successively lied points to something systemic getting in the way of democratic accountability in the U.S. Besides the growing power of the presidency since World War II, the ease by which administrations can insulate themselves from the public, rather than being accountable to it, would have come through more in the film.
In short, more substance on the main character, the Pentagon Papers, as well as the initial roles of Ellsberg and The New York Times, could have come in by not giving so much screen time to the Bradlee-Graham relationship and even the competing interests within The Washington Post. The result would have been more of a multi-level film.  

[1] Jim Rutenberg, “Spielberg’s ‘The Post’ Provides Fitting End to Turbulent Year for the Media,” The New York Times, December 24, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.