‘The Post’ is a Love Letter to the Press, Past and Present

“The Post” feels relatable. That’s deliberate, and it’s important.

Movies like “Spotlight” and “All the President’s Men” have brought the dignity of the press to the silver screen with outstanding casts; but “The Post” offers more than a celebratory journalism movie.  

Steven Spielberg’s film tells the story of The Washington Post’s decision to publish the classified documents about the United State’s involvement in the Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers, with a startling relevancy to similar issues the press faces today.

With Trump’s constant attacks on the press and his recently announced 2017 Fake News Awards, this celebration of the press arrives during a growing negative narrative from the White House.

“It seems particularly significant right now, when there’s an orange buffoon tweeting about awarding ‘worst news’ awards as a propaganda tool to stifle criticism,”  wrote Wenlei Ma for news.com.au. ‘The Post’ is Spielberg’s “f— you” to Trump.”

“The parallel between Nixon and his unfailing drive to control the narrative and Trump and his complete disregard for the truth is not subtle.”

Watching Katharine Graham — the paper’s publisher at the time played by Meryl Streep — struggle with finding the confidence as a woman to lead the paper in a strongly male-dominated atmosphere is reminiscent of themes brought up by the #MeToo movement.

Graham isn’t sure how to handle dominating men trying to tell her what to do, just like countless numbers of women whose authorities are questioned or undermined by men. Editor Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks) desperately wants the papers published, but many of the male board members argue it could ruin the paper’s financial prospects as it decides to hold an IPO.

“‘The Post’ is as much about Graham’s journey of finding the confidence in her voice and instincts, as it is about journalistic integrity and its vital role in a functioning democracy,” wrote Ma.

When Graham does give the go-ahead to publish articles about the classified information, the right to publish gets tested in the Supreme Court. Spoiler: The court upholds freedom of the press.

At one point, then-Post Assistant Editor Ben Bagdikian (played by Bob Odenkirk) realizes that he could go to jail if he refuses to identify the source that gave him the papers.

In 2008, New York Times reporter James Risen faced the same predicament when he fought a subpoena to testify on his source that gave him classified information for his book. In 2005, New York Times reporter Judith Miller actually went to jail after being found in contempt of court for refusing to reveal who had leaked information about a CIA operative’s identity.

President Richard Nixon tries multiple times throughout the film to undermine the Post’s reporting efforts by barring reporters from the White House. The Trump White House, similarly, didn’t invite several black and LGBT journalists to the annual Christmas party, according to two Newsweek articles.

While “it’s the first major Hollywood production to tackle, at least by historical analogy, the ominous implications of the Trump presidency,” critics debate the relevancy of the film, wrote Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. He argued that it is prescient, but in a subtle way.

“‘The Post’ says that journalism, when it’s working, is always unprecedented, because it always emerges from the special circumstances of the time. That’s true, even more so, for heroic, innovative, outside-the-box journalism,” Gleiberman noted. “What Spielberg is really up to in ‘The Post’ is preparing us for what lies ahead, possibly in 2018.”

Not every critic loved the film. The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr called it “utterly conventional” with a deeply self-congratulatory tone and plot of whether to publish or not to publish that lacks a compelling dilemma.

Orr noted, however, that the movie is both a Trump-era defense of the importance of the free press and “the story of a personally insecure and professional underestimated woman.”

Hanks, Spielberg and Streep discussed the film’s relevance in a sit-down Skype interview on Dec 8 with eight universities around the country. The Daily Free Press’ Lauren Frias reported Spielberg said that the lie told by the Nixon administration in the 1970s “is a story that is vaguely familiar to all of us in this day and age”.

Streep, who has publicly criticized Trump, said he might like the patriotic film, and it might inspire him to “stop the shenanigans and give some respect for people who are operating on their principles and not on their appetite,” reported Frias.

The chances of Trump internalizing the lessons of “The Post” are minimal, but at least the film can help those unfamiliar with how media companies make editorial decisions appreciate the skill and bravery it takes to produce important journalism.

 

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