Review: ‘The Post’ Tells It Like It Was in 1971

I very rarely write “first person” articles, but I have just come from an opening weekend screening of The Post and it would be impossible for me to write a review of this film without referring to my personal experiences during the week that the story about the Pentagon Papers broke.

When the story broke, I was working as an editorial assistant at the New York Post. I was also active in the anti-war movement, as I had been for several years.

As an anti-war activist, I was surprised that anyone was surprised by the Pentagon Papers. Many of us in the “movement” knew that the documents existed even if we had never seen them. Daniel Ellsberg – the man who unleashed the Pentagon Papers – actually pilfered them from the Rand Corporation in 1969, and tried to get Senators William Fulbright and George McGovern to help him release the documents. Parts of the Pentagon Papers leaked out and had been in circulation inside the anti-war movement for two or three years before they were ever published. Since it was impossible for anyone to document the provenance of the fragments that were in circulation, it was also impossible for any reputable news organization to take the stories seriously. That was how the news business worked back then: no innuendo allowed.

As a member of the Newspaper Guild, and therefore a card carrying journalist, I was outraged when the Times kowtowed to the June 14, 1971 restraining order that stopped the publication of Pentagon Papers after the third installment. Like everyone else in the newspaper business, I felt that the Times’ failure to defy the injunction was an unforgivable breach of a newspaper’s duty to the public. Then, when The Washington Post started releasing more of the Pentagon Papers on June 18, defying the Nixon administration’s attempts to stop them, we all breathed a sigh of relief….until the Supreme Court stepped in with what was at best a weak statement of support for the freedom of the press.

With that background, knowing the beginning, the middle and the end of the story, I was prepared to be bored by The Post. 

I wasn’t. The film is a winner.

The Post is three-time Best Director Steven Spielberg’s 56th film. It will certainly be nominated for an Academy Award. That goes without saying, simply because he has three-time Best Actress winner Meryl Streep paired with two-time Best Actor winner Tom Hanks in the same film, the first time the two have ever worked together. It would, however, be ridiculous for anyone to predict – in January – that The Post will win the Best Picture nod for 2018.

The Post will win the Best Picture Oscar for 2018. If not, then Best Director, or Best Actor, or Best Actress, or maybe all four….and here’s why:

Despite the rehashing of events that took place 47 years ago, the film makes a very timely point about the necessity for a free press at a time when the very concept of freedom of speech is under attack by the Trump administration. Again and again, the script by Josh Singer (2015 Best Original Screenplay for Spotlight, a film about The Boston Globe’s efforts to uncover the priestly child abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic church) and newcomer Liz Hannah, subtly reinforces the comparisons between Nixon’s attempts to intimidate the press and Donald Trump’s efforts to do the same thing.

Spielberg’s deft direction focuses our attention on the infighting within The Washington Post over the question of whether to publish the Pentagon Paper despite threats from the Nixon administration. The problem, from Katherine Graham’s point of view, was that she was about to take the newspaper public with an initial public offering on the American Stock Exchange, and her advisers felt that the blow back from the publication of the Pentagon Papers could torpedo the offering.  From Bradlee’s point of view, the failure to publish would tarnish the reputation of The Washington Post – and his own reputation as a journalist – beyond repair.

The antagonist in the film is the 37th president of the United States, Richard Milhouse Nixon, but the protagonists and the antagonist are never seen together. Nixon is seen only from behind through the windows of the Oval Office and only heard in telephone conversations that bring out the venal nature of his personality. We know that these snippets are the real thing because we have the actual tape recordings of the conversations courtesy of Nixon’s own recording system. Alas, the voice isn’t really Nixon, who was voiced by actor Curzon Dobell.

The story then is the story of the struggle between an embattled president, a beleaguered publisher, squeamish board members, and fire eating editor who wants to build The Post into the first rate paper it became and who just won’t take no for an answer.

The real reason that The Post is already a shoe-in for an Academy Award – or two, or three, if not four – is that Hollywood is aching to take some shots at Donald Trump and Academy members will want to make sure that Democratic supporters Spielberg, Streep and Hanks get the chance make their statements of opposition to the Trump regime in the most widely- watched non-sports event of the year.

Streep as Graham and Hanks as Bradlee

Nevertheless, Streep is simply terrific, once again, underplaying Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham (1917-2001.) Playing such a well-known figure as socialite Graham, who was in the public eye for most of her 84 years, is difficult. In the key scene, in which Graham makes the final decision to publish the Papers and face the wrath of the Nixon administration, she moves from an appearance of weakness to a pillar of strength as she faces down the men around her who are trying to convince her not to do that.

Hanks plays The Post‘s long-time editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee as a rough and tumble street fighter. In fact, Bradlee was a blue-blooded Boston Brahmin, Harvard graduate, World War II veteran and occasional CIA operative, as well as being a well-seasoned reporter and editor. We also know Bradlee from Jason Robards’ Oscar-winning impersonation of the curmudgeonly Bradlee in All The President’s Men, which covered the next chapter in the long-running battle between the Nixon Administration and The Washington Post.

One of the inescapable problems from which the film suffers is the age differences between the stars and the characters they portray. Graham was 54 in 1971. Streep is 68, which isn’t too big a stretch for an actress with her talent, but she looks older than Graham was during the time span covered in the film. This was a deliberate decision and I thought it was a mistake. I remember Graham from those years and she never looked as careworn as Streep plays her. Streep looks much younger in her latest film, Momma Mia! Here We Go Again, which is now in previews.

Bradlee and Graham, 1971

Hanks is now 62 but Ben Bradlee was only 50 during the period of time covered by the film and, like Streep’s characterization of Graham, Hanks’ Bradlee simply looks and seems older than the man was. Jason Robards, on the other hand, was only 54 when he played Bradlee at 51, and turned in an uncanny characterization of Bradlee that earned him the first of two successive Academy Awards, but he had the advantage of actually knowing Bradlee in real life.

That said, the casting is nevertheless spot on when the whole film is put into context. The set dressings and costumes were accurate for the period. The depictions of the anti-war demonstrations, on the other hand, were farcical but there was nothing farcical about those demonstrations in real life. There’s a vignette of someone trying to pull off an Abbie Hoffman impersonation (or maybe they were thinking about Jerry Rubin.) If it was supposed to be Abbie Hoffman, he never dressed that well. If it was Jerry Rubin, he never dressed that poorly. Hoffman mostly wore denim work shirts, except when he was wearing his famous American Flag shirt. Rubin shopped at Saks Fifth Avenue for his Hippie garb. (I kid you not.)

Special credit goes to Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness) as Robert McNamara, who would be justified for expecting a best supporting actor nomination for his portrayal of the uptight, complex,  morally compromised Secretary of Defense. (He also turned in a nomination-worthy performance in Thirteen Days, playing John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile crisis but he didn’t get one.)

Another nod goes out to Matthew Rhys for his convincing portrayal of Daniel Ellsberg himself. (Remember Ellsberg, 86, is still alive to complain if the portrait were less convincing.)

Throughout this film, Spielberg had to deal with the problem of portraying well-known historical figures whom many audience members remember quite clearly. There’s also the problem of using actual footage, such as Walter Cronkite’s famous Daniel Ellsberg interview, in the context of the film. Spielberg, who has a lot of experience mixing fact and illusion, does it very well. It is actually fun trying to figure out who is supposed to be whom in various crowd scenes, but only if you are old enough to remember seeing it all on TV as it was happening.

For younger audiences, who either don’t know much – if they know anything at all – about this period, The Post is a much needed history lesson about the misuse of power and the power of the press. (Unfortunately, I would guess the average age of the audience at my showing at the mid-seventies but, then, I’m in South Florida.)

In a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, Daniel Ellsberg admitted that he had access to some of the documents that became known as the Pentagon Paper in 1964 and 1965. The documents in his possession were the plans for the escalation of the war, plans that contradicted the public statements from the Johnson administration. Ellsberg regrets not having released them back then, when they might have prevented the escalation into a full-blown war.

Two footnotes. Early in the film, there’s a scene that depicts the copying of the documents that became known as the Pentagon Papers. As the co-conspirators enter the office where they are going to copy the papers, you will see them walk past a movie poster for the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which came out in 1969. That film co-starred Robert Redford who would later play Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men in 1976. (Xerox machines weren’t easy to come by in 1971. You couldn’t just drop off the Pentagon Papers at the local copy shop because there weren’t any yet.)

The second point is that it is pretty obvious that Spielberg never heard a Linotype machine in operation. In the film, they were whisper quiet. In real life they were incredibly noisy contraptions, but I sure did like seeing them again.