Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Post

Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham (left) and Executive Director Ben Bradlee leave the U.S. District Court

Daniel Ellsberg

THE POST                  B-                   
USA  (115 mi)  2017  d:  Steven Spielberg                Facebook official page

A recollection from the halcyon days of journalism, like a golden oldie surging back to life, though in the modern era there is nothing like the backdrop of Vietnam, a continuing war with a rising body count of weekly casualties, all of which add to public dissent, which becomes a staple in the headlines, with polls indicating a growing unpopularity of a foreign war that reaps little rewards, that seems more trouble than it’s worth, yet massive funding continues.  By now, nearly everyone knows someone personally who has perished in this effort, supposedly to stop communism, but the more it drags on the less effective this argument becomes, with America paying too high a price, that only gets worse when the President starts lying about it, not only to the public but to Congress, knowing the military operation would fail, but expanding the war anyway, where the overriding reason (70%), we discover, was to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat, claiming for a year that we were not anywhere in Laos or Cambodia, yet that turned out to be a blatant fabrication because President Lyndon Johnson knew the nation was not ready for an expansion, though secret military operations enlarged the scope of its actions, none of which was reported in mainstream newspapers.  At the heart of this cover up was an extensive military report (later called “The Pentagon Papers”) ordered by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who wanted an encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War written as it happened, going back to the Truman era, using active-duty military officers, academics, and civilian employees within the defense department, but failed to inform either the President or the Secretary of State about the existence of this on-going report that actually had its origins in the summer of 1967 and might have played a significant factor when a change in leadership occurred in the 1968 Presidential elections, as Democratic candidates Kennedy and McGovern were adamantly against the war, Humphrey was more of a centrist, while Republican candidate Richard Nixon was a strong advocate.  When Nixon was elected, McNamara left the Defense Department in February 1968, while his successor, Clark M. Clifford, received the finished study on January 15, 1969, five days before Richard Nixon’s inauguration, though Clifford claimed he never read it.  The study itself was comprised of 3000 pages of historical analysis and 4000 pages of original government documents, totaling 47 volumes that was classified as “Top Secret – Sensitive.”  Only 15 copies were distributed.  

Enter Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a military analyst who in the mid 60’s accompanied military troops in combat, documenting the Vietnam military activities in reports written for McNamara.  On a return flight home, Ellsberg overhears McNamara’s own assessment to President Johnson that the war was unwinnable, yet once faced with reporters on the ground, McNamara repeats his beaming confidence in the overall war effort.  This duplicitous face of the government eventually haunts Ellsberg, seen years later secretly photocopying the classified report, which is an immense undertaking, leaking 43 of the volumes to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan in March of 1971, who began releasing a series of unflattering front-page reports in June, basically an exposé of the government’s long-running deception of the American public.  However, Nixon’s White House finds the release of classified documents as acts paramount to treason, obtaining a court injunction forcing The New York Times to halt to any further publication after three articles.  What this film dramatizes is a pending decision about what to do by The Washington Post, specifically Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), owner and publisher, and Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), editor, who agonize about whether or not to publish.  What’s particularly galling is the extent to which publishing and business was exclusively a man’s world, with board rooms looking like men’s clubs, as the presence of women was not taken seriously.  As the sole woman in the room, Graham was well aware of her deficiencies, a woman of wealth and privilege, as she was known more for her gracious hosting of parties with access to important dignitaries than for her business acumen, as she inherited the newspaper after the death of her husband, whose grandfather was the publisher before that, running what was viewed as a family-run paper, but she is in the midst of transitioning the paper into a public corporation beholden to stockholders.  What’s clear is Graham’s anxiety about the business aspect, lacking actual experience, which was her husband’s specialty, deferring to more assertive men that work for her, including the indispensable advice of the paper’s Chairman Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), her operations manager Ben Bradlee, and board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford).  Bradlee fumes under the shadow of The New York Times, always getting the major scoops, where his competitive instinct is to turn that around and compete on the national landscape.  This court injunction offers him a window of opportunity to fill the void, but first he has to get his hands on the report.  Like an unfolding mystery, assistant editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) is successful in tracing the material to Daniel Ellsberg, eventually obtaining the same documents as The New York Times, with the ultimate question looming:  what are they going to do with it?    
With the White House threatening to sue the paper at the same time Graham was opening the company to public stock options, doomsday scenarios ensue, like a heavy dose of cold water, so the paper sends in its inordinately dour legal team, overly cautious men frought with dire predictions, some suggesting Graham and Bradlee could end up in jail, with the possibility that the paper itself could fold due to catastrophic events.  Fritz is against it, as is Parsons, feeling the need to protect Graham and the paper from the vindictiveness of Nixon in the White House, known for utilizing dirty tricks, reiterating Nixon’s nickname “Tricky Dick.”  Bradlee on the other hand is all guns blazing, believing the essence of a good newspaper is defending free speech, without which they don’t have much of a newspaper.  Racing against time, Bradlee has a date with destiny, scouring through the documents, placing two of his best reporters on writing front page stories, churning out a morning edition that will be ready to go, but held in limbo until Graham makes the final call.  There are some questions raised about professionalism and friendships, as Bradlee was a friend of the Kennedy’s, which gave him accessibility but also exclusive information, based on his close working relationship.  Would he have maintained that close relationship had he written scathingly critical articles?  Did that friendship prohibit criticism?  Graham was asked to do the same with McNamara, who was a close personal friend.  Would she betray that friendship with a revealing exposé?  There’s an interesting dialogue between the two as they discuss the fracturing viewpoints about the war, like how could he continue to send young men and women into combat for nearly a decade knowing their situation was hopelessly unwinnable?  Once Graham gives the decision to print, the film turns into Sam Fuller’s jingoistic PARK ROW (1952), an expression of Americana and patriotism released during the McCarthy era, with the press laying the groundwork of the moral fabric of the nation.  With Nixon’s own paranoid voice heard on telephone calls, the film telegraphs its true target, the sitting President in the White House, categorizing journalists as ‘fake’ or ‘dishonest’ in his attempts to delegitimize mainstream media outlets, ordering his attorney general to crack down on government whistleblowers, a man who views the Justice Department, the Pentagon, and all his cabinet members, as well as every member of his own political party as exclusively serving him, protecting the President’s interests, pledging allegiance to him, viewing himself as an absolute monarchy, like a man who would be king. 

Not only The Post, but fifteen other newspapers received copies of the report and began publishing as well.  Moving quickly to the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, reading from the majority opinion:  “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.”  While the message is clear, the problem with the film is just how old-fashioned it feels, with a John Williams musical score that reeks of ordinary, where the credibility of the war sequences, the street demonstrations, or even the bad hair and make-up, are reduced to pure artifice and cliché, resembling movies shot on back lots, without expressing an ounce of reality.  As a journalistic exposé, this isn’t even in the same universe as Tom McCarthy’s much more compelling Spotlight (2015), though Josh Singer co-wrote both.  Ever the moralist, Spielberg turns this into a melodramatic tearjerker, placing all the emphasis on turning Graham into a feminist role model, creating a wall of women completely in awe on both sides of her as she walks down the steps of the Supreme Court, typical heavy-handed stuff from this director, known for telegraphing his emotional intent, anointing yet another patriotic hero image, or in this case heroine.  It’s not until the end of the film that Graham actually stands up to the men protesting her decision as reckless, including Fritz and Parsons, finally finding her own footing.  At the time, few women had run nationally prominent newspapers in the United States (According to “The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2017, women today run three of the top 25 newspaper titles in the U.S. and only one of the top 25 around the world), women were barred from even receiving press credentials at the White House until 1971, yet the subsequent newspaper coverage of escalating national events quickly changed all that, ushering in a new era, with The Washington Post winning 47 Pulitzer prizes, nearly all of them coming after the period covered in the film, including the infamous Woodward and Bernstein reporters that broke the Watergate scandal, with a bungled Watergate burglary depicted at the end of the film, exactly where Alan J. Pakula’s ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976) begins.  It should be noted, however, as the film avoids this story completely, that the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for the year 1971 was awarded not to The Post, but to The New York Times for their publication of “The Pentagon Papers.”   

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