The Post is the sort of movie you feel good for seeing—and that’s the trouble with it. Spielberg, as usual, lays in plenty of nostalgia—rotary pay phones, workplace smoking, and pencil-wielding editors feeding copy into pneumatic tubes to be typeset and printed on massive machines—are catnip for Baby Boomers who are now old enough to prattle about how things were so much better back in their day.
Yup, back in their day—in this case 1971— the press cared less about share prices and more about their sacred constitutional duty as the fourth estate. The Post exists to enshrine that conceit solidly in the narrative of the Age of Trump. It’s heroine is Katherine Graham, who found herself the owner of the Washington Post after her husband’s suicide, who is in the process of taking the cash-strapped company public. Soon after the New York Times is sued by the Nixon administration for reporting on the contents of the Pentagon Papers and then enjoined from continuing to do so, the Post gets a copy of the secret report, and Graham must to decide whether to report on them while the Times can’t, knowing that if she does, the Post’s new investors could pull out and she could go to jail.
Post editor Ben Bradlee, portrayed by the jutting chin and gravelly voice of Tom Hanks, not only urges Graham to publish, but pushes her to approach a close friend of hers to go on the record with the Post about the Papers—the friend being Robert McNamara, the Kennedy/Johnson secretary of defense who commissioned the Papers and kept from the public, among other things, their conclusion that the Vietnam War could not be won.
This leads to the only moment in the film that even hints that the press might not always serve as disinterested reporters of the facts: Bradlee’s grudging admission to Graham that his personal friendship with John F. Kennedy might have hampered his ability to report fairly on that president. In fact, Bradlee often went much farther than that, writing stories for Newsweek poor-mouthing inconvenient, but true, rumors and reports in other publications that could have harmed Kennedy, mostly notably the fact that JFK had been married before Jackie, to a Florida socialite named Durie Malcolm, and that that marriage was never legally dissolved. (See Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot.)
Graham eventually sides with Bradlee and against the advice of her lawyers and business advisers and decides to publish—we get plenty of Oscar-worthy dithering from Meryl Streep before she does—and is soon vindicated, along with the Times, by the Supreme Court’s decision in New York Times Co. v. United States, proving to one and all that the Constitution works just fine whenever an ordinary citizen thrust into extraordinary circumstances stands on conviction against government tyranny. The fact that the real world is not like this most of the time is why I’m always peeved by The Post and movies like it.
Movies like Snowden and Kill the Messenger get at the way things actually are under the regime that Graham, Bradlee, and company supposedly triumphed against. The reporting on the Pentagon Papers might have hastened, ever so slightly, the long-delayed US capitulation in Vietnam (which finally came in 1975), and it did cause the public to be somewhat more skeptical of government.
But the behavior of the Times, the Post, and other major American news media outlets has done little to threaten the consensus of the ruling class for the past century—that the American state has not only the right but the duty to patrol the Earth searching for monsters to destroy. If they knew about it, would the Post have fought to publish details of, say, the Nixon/Kissinger plan to commit genocide in Cambodia while it was in progress? Probably not. As the movie makes clear, the Post would do nothing to “endanger” American soldiers, never mind the “collateral damage,” the state’s term those unfortunate enough to be non-Americans in range of Uncle Sam’s guns. And never mind that soldiers are actually put in danger by the politicians and generals who command them, and, in today’s volunteer army, but their own choice. The Post journalists as depicted in the film, are most horrified not of the United States fighting a war in Vietnam with the forced servitude of hundreds of thousands of Americans, but merely in the government’s continuing to fight it after they knew they couldn’t win it, purely to delay the political repercussions of losing a war.
“I’ve always wanted to be part of a small rebellion,” says reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), in one of the lines featured prominently in the film’s promotion. As the Post’s sycophantic reporting on America’s foreign adventures from the Cold War through the Bush/Obama disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan show, the revolution that The Post so complacently celebrates was very small indeed.