Monday, January 15, 2018

The Post (the Movie)

Steven Spielberg's The Post, starring Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, recalls The Washington Post's involvement in the epochal conflict between journalists and the US Government surrounding the publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971. 

The Pentagon Papers (for anyone who may not remember) was actually a study prepared by the Defense Department of the US-Vietnam relationship over the period from 1945 to 1967, leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg, who had been involved in the study Although it was the Nixon Administration that fought to stop their publication, the documents themselves focused on the two decades prior to the Nixon Administration - the presidencies of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. Their significance was in revealing the full scope of US involvement in the region with little expectation of ultimate success - suggesting in effect a decades-long failure of policy and a pattern of persistent government deception. The publication of the Pentagon Papers further helped to undermine whatever credibility US policy in Vietnam may still have had by the 1970s. So, even though it was previous Administrations whose failures were detailed int he papers, the Nixon Administration tried to halt the papers' publication, which embroiled it in a legal case against The New York Times and The Washington Post, a case which quickly went to the Supreme Court where the government lost and the newspapers won by a vote of 6-3.

The publication of the Pentagon Papers and the subsequent court cases constituted a watershed event in the unravelling of the American policy in Vietnam and the unravelling also of the credibility of the government. It marled a major moment in the creation of the adversarial culture between government and media (soon to be reinforced and institutionalized by Watergate) which has largely existed since then. Whether that has been entirely beneficial is a question that needs to be asked, although there can be no doubt that the unmasking of the duplicity underlying American foreign policy in regard to Vietnam was a great  and much needed service. That, followed soon after by Watergate, definitively altered the balance between trust and distrust in our culture - a mixed blessing at best, as tan adversarial culture of mutual mistrust has spread to virtually all institutions and relationships in society.

Given the importance of the events recounted and the stellar cast, the film succeeds in its purpose. It is also a window (for those who don't remember) into the early 1970s and into the cozy (corruptly cozy?) relationships that existed among governmental and media elites. Paraphrasing Lord Acton, elites are corrupt, and elites being cozy with each other corrupts absolutely! That should be kept in mind whenever the press engages in its favorite pastime of self-righteously lecturing the rest of us on how essential the press is. There is a bit more of that in the film than anyone needs to hear - especially coming from, of all people, Ben Bradlee.

The characterization of Katharine Graham is especially superb. (What else would one expect form Meryl Streep?) We watch her grow in her self-confidence as leader of her company, a role she had not originally expected to play and which the mores of the time had not prepared her for - in the process helping to transform The Post from a local newspaper to a national media treasure.

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