At Cinemark/Myrna Loy
Those who fear truth inevitably try to silence the press. Cries of “Kill the messenger!” always ring out when the message is unflattering.
“The Post” is the latest Steven Spielberg triumph, which belongs somewhere in the pantheon of his most enduring films alongside the likes of “Schindler’s List,” “E.T.” and “Lincoln.”
Before extolling the virtues of “The Post,” the story of the publishing of the Pentagon Papers that exposed government lying about Vietnam, let’s take issue with the film’s title, on two levels.
For starters, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies is reminding moviegoers that the New York Times won the Pulitzer for reporting on the Pentagon Papers, not the Washington Post. The film’s script spins the narrative to imply that The Post was the heroic organization that ducked enemy bullets and charged first over the hill. In truth, The Times broke that story.
The Post deserves an Oscar for supporting actor, for sure, but The Times contributions are clearly undervalued in Spielberg’s script.
The second problem with the title is that neither paper really deserves top billing. The story, at its heart, is about Post publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham in much the same way that “Lincoln” was about Abe.
“Iron Kay” would have been a better moniker.
“The Post” chronicles how a woman of wealth with no ambition for power was thrust into a high-stakes leadership position after her husband committed suicide. Tentative at first, Graham gradually rose to the challenge and made courageous decisions under intense pressure.
Meryl Streep captures the nuances in that evolution. Graham sets aside her silver spoon to pick up a sword that’s shaped like a pen to defend freedom of the press.
There are a number of remarkable scenes depicting Kay’s transformation.
In one, Graham coolly explains to her associates The Post is no longer her husband’s paper. “It is now my paper,” she says firmly, a rejoinder to the male-centric suggestion a woman would not have the “resolve” to make tough decisions.
“The Post” is, at its core, a feminist biography of the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
The power comes from its willingness to show Graham’s doubts and vulnerabilities. This University of Chicago graduate is smart enough to understand the complexity inside the issues. She knows that the business of journalism must precariously balance the pursuit of profit with the pursuit of truth.
Graham, knows that violating a court order that “stopped the presses” could send her to jail and bankrupt The Post. She also knows that letting Nixon silence the press would set a chilling precedent.
The decision comes down to a midnight phone call, with the presses on hold. Lawyers and board members warn Graham that The Post is on thin legal ice by publishing stolen Top Secret documents. Graham listens, then asks her editor Ben Bradlee to weigh in on behalf of the newsroom. She’s told some will resign if the story is pulled.
After a long, tense pause in which her doubts are transparent, Graham says “Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s publish.” Those words may well ring out as a mantra of Streep’s brilliant career.
There is, of course, a much broader frantic story taking place around Katharine Graham. We watch reporters chase a story, overcome obstacles, defy risk and ultimately uncover the truth about White House lies. Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee with conviction and cynicism.
One of the most resonant performances is by Bob Odenkirk as the assistant Post editor Ben Bagdikian who engages in good old fashioned shoe-leather reporting.
Odenkirk pours his soul and his soles into locating Daniel Ellsberg. He ends up knocking on the door of a marginal motel. Inside, sprawled out on two beds, are the Pentagon Papers being guarded by a very paranoid and very brave whistleblower.
“The Post” is an ode to truth in a time when cries of “fake news” echo angrily through the culture. Editor Ben Bagdikian was also a Berkeley journalism professor.
“Never forget that your obligation is to the people,” he reminded his students. “It is not, at heart, to those who pay you, or to your editor, or to your sources, or to your friends, or to the advancement of your career. It is to the public.”
Those same sentiments were echoed by the late Keith Jackson, a sports journalist of unimpeachable integrity.
“Amplify, clarify, don’t interfere,” said Jackson, who died Jan. 12.
“The Post” pays tribute to those values by introducing us to writers and editors who were driven by a search for truth, no matter how powerful and relentless the forces trying to silence them.
That’s a timeless lesson that’s never been more urgent.