The timing could not be better for veteran director Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which David Erhlich of Indiewire aptly calls a “spectacularly entertaining journalism thriller (that) is a rallying cry for the resistance.” (The Post has received an Academy Award nomination for best picture.) It taps into the zeitgeist of the necessary fight against the corrosive effects of “post-truth” and “alternative facts,” against the constant attacks on the news media by autocrats and Trumpers.
The “Post” of the title is The Washington Post, the U.S. capital’s newspaper of record although it held a less prominent position than the august New York Times, also hated by the Nixon White House when a famous 1971 showdown took place over publication of what came to be known by as “The Pentagon Papers,” a 47-volume detailed study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam which revealed that successive American governments had systematically lied to Congress and the public over decades. It was the work of the Vietnam Study Task Force created in 1967 by U.S. Secretary of defence Robert McNamara (well played by Canadian Bruce Greenwood). Classified “Top Secret — Sensitive” on every page, the candid findings were supposedly intended “for posterity.”
The movie actually opens in 1966 in the steamy jungles of Vietnam as an armed military analyst, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), experiences the frontline first-hand, then briefs McNamara with a pessimistic assessment of the war’s prospects. After returning from two years in South Vietnam Ellsberg contributed to the Pentagon Papers and went back to work for the Rand Corporation, which held several copies. Increasingly dismayed by how senior administration officials continued to mislead the American people, sending more young men to die in vain, Ellsberg took the courageous step of surreptitiously removing volumes and photocopying them over several months. These pages would find their way to the New York Times’ ace reporter on the war, Neil Sheehan, igniting renewed anti-war protests and a political firestorm when The Times began publishing excerpts on June 13, 1971.
The venerable Washington Post (founded 1877) had long been owned by the Graham family company. Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep, nominated for best actress) had taken over as publisher following the tragedy of her husband’s suicide in 1963. A prominent Washington socialite, she also considered McNamara to be an old friend. Indeed he was a guest at gathering she held in her home in the midst of the turmoil. She was surrounded by powerful men, notably the Post’s hard-driving executive editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and her chief adviser, Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), as well as being the only woman in rooms full of assertive male bankers and lawyers.
The timing was critical to the Post’s fortunes in another respect as it was being listed through a public offering on the American Stock Exchange in order to raise funds, hence vulnerable to nervous investors as well as potential criminal prosecution for leaking government secrets. While Kay hesitated (meeting privately with McNamara at one point) she did not flinch and made clear she had the last word.
In the lead-up to these dramatic events, there was a kerfuffle over a Post reporter being barred from covering the wedding of one of President Nixon’s daughters. But sensing something much more important, Bradlee suspected Sheehan might be about to break a big story at the rival Times headed by Abe Rosenthal (Michael Stuhlbarg). His competitive instincts were aroused. Although Bradlee was unable to discover the content, he put a trusted reporter, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), on the case. After the initial story broke, the Nixon White House quickly got a federal judge to issue a temporary injunction blocking further excerpts from appearing in The Times. That created an opportunity for the Post to publish, and a crucial moment of decision after Bagdikian was able to track down Ellsberg as the source and obtain 4,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers from him.
The problem, for the Post’s lawyers, was that if this was the same source as that used by the NY Times the injunction could subject the paper to prosecution under the Espionage Act. Graham and Bradlee could have faced jail time for contempt of court. The Post’s very survival could have been on the line. In the circumstances the late night call to “roll the presses!” was a courageous act for the rights of a free press, one that was vindicated within days by a 6-3 Supreme Court decision upholding the right to publish.
Streep and Hanks, together for the first time on screen, do great work. The whole ensemble is strong, working from a sharp screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (co-writer of the 2015 Oscar best picture Spotlight which also highlighted the vital role of investigative journalism). Spielberg’s assured direction, more methodical than flashy, proves effective in conveying the high stakes involved.
The Pentagon Papers revelations were deeply disturbing to both Graham and Bradlee as they had been on friendly terms with the administrations of “Jack” Kennedy and LBJ. They had to accept the evidence that, to cite the title of a 2016 documentary about gadfly journalistic icon I.F. Stone, “all governments lie.” Still, some governments lie more often, blatantly and vindictively than others. The Post actually ends with the discovery of the burglary of the offices of the Democratic National Committee a year later in June 1972, which led to the “Watergate” scandal that brought down Nixon. And as Chris Knight observes in his National Post review: “When we hear Nixon (the film used his actual recordings) railing against the Post and telling an aide their reporters are to be banned from the White House, it’s impossible not to imagine a president flailing about over ‘fake news’ and demanding that reporters be fired for disagreeing with him.”
Parallels to the dangers posed by Trump’s war on a free press that is less than “loyal” to him are clearly intended. That’s also reflected in the look of the picture as shot by Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. As the director told The Hollywood Reporter: “I wanted this movie to feel very contemporary, just like the story. I wanted people to feel there is a (direct parallel) between what was happening in 1971 — and the Nixon administration and Washington Post — and what’s happening right now with this administration and (Trump’s) desire to control the press and freedom of speech.”
The threat is to American democracy itself as explained by Yale University professor Timothy Snyder in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Pertinently he writes: “In 1971, contemplating the lies told in the United States about the Vietnam War, the political theorist Hannah Arendt took comfort in the inherent power of facts to overcome falsehoods in a free society . . . We need print journalists so that stories can develop on the page and in our minds. . . . The better print journalists allow us to consider the meaning, for ourselves and our country, of what might otherwise seem to be isolated bits of information. But while anyone can repost an article, research and writing is hard work that requires time and money. Before you deride the ‘mainstream media,’ note that it is no longer the mainstream. It is derision that is mainstream and easy, actual journalism that is edgy and difficult. . . . the work of people who adhere to journalistic ethics is of a different quality than the work of those who do not.” In short, the public’s right to know the truth still matters for a democracy to be worthy of the name.
Phantom Thread, the new film from writer-director-cinematographer Paul Thomas Anderson, is getting admiration as well as attention for being reputedly the final performance of 61-year-old British acting legend Daniel Day-Lewis who already owns three best actor Oscars (and is nominated in that category for this role). The film is also nominated for best picture.
Day-Lewis portrays a mid-20th century British dressmaker, Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock, an obsessive perfectionist who runs the celebrated haute couture Woodcock House with his trusted sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, nominated for best supporting actress). As always, Day-Lewis completely inhabits the role, the solitary nature of which is challenged when the fastidious bachelor discovers a young German immigrant, Alma (Vicky Krieps), working as a waitress and decides to make her his model and inspiration. A complex relationship develops that is something to behold. Amid the sometimes stormy moments there is a suggestion they have become lovers. As we follow the threads of the story the intricate hand-stitched creations (from designer Mark Bridges) that are the fruit of this collaboration share centre stage (the film has received a nomination for costume design).
As a rule, the fashion world doesn’t much interest me (or what lies behind those perennial red-carpet questions “what and who is she wearing?”). But this evocative character study, which also benefits from a fine original score by Jonny Greenwood, ruffles a lot more than beautiful clothes. Day-Lewis gives us the satisfaction of another memorably idiosyncratic performance. Krieps excels too. (Watch for her as Jenny Marx in Raoul Peck’s new movie The Young Karl Marx.) It’s enough to enjoy the flourishes in this strange fashion-struck tale.