Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg. Who could ask for anything more!
The film they’ve made together is called “The Post” and it is thought by many to be 2017’s Best Picture in a year filled with an overwhelming collection of exceptionally fine films.
The Post refers, of course, to the Washington Post and its historical role in exposing to the American public the insidious behavior of the government and of an unyielding succession of presidents who directed the Vietnam War.
The central figure in this drama is Daniel Ellsberg, a summa cum laude graduate of Harvard with a PhD in Economics, who began his work as a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation. In 1964 he worked at the Pentagon under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and then spent two years in Vietnam working for the State Department.
A particularly telling scene in “The Post” shows Ellsberg, on a plane with McNamara, listening to the Secretary deliver a devastating commentary on the futility of the war, and how unwinnable it was, and then, upon landing, assuring a group of reporters that the war was going very well and that he was pleased with its progress.
Returning to RAND, Ellsberg participated in the compilation of a top-secret report on the conduct of the war and was horrified to discover that every president since Eisenhower had lied about the war’s progress and had sent many thousands of men to their deaths rather than quit the fight and acknowledge that the United States had lost its first war.
The classified documents in the top-secret report became known collectively as the Pentagon Papers and Ellsberg was instrumental in having them “leaked” to the New York Times. When a court subsequently ordered the Times to cease further publication of the documents, however, the Washington Post stepped in to pick up the slack.
The Post at that time was something of a “family” paper that catered to its own community. Founded in 1877, it was purchased in 1933 by Eugene Meyer, who subsequently passed it on to his son-in-law, Philip Graham. At Graham’s death the paper passed to his wife, Katherine.
Katherine Graham was a capable and intelligent woman, but she had no experience publishing a newspaper and was intimidated by the prospect. Fortunately, however, she had an intrepid newsman, Benjamin Bradlee, at her side, and it was he who pushed her to challenge the decision of the court and to publish the Pentagon Papers.
Frightened by the possibility of losing her paper and then winding up in jail, and hesitant to offend the important people who were her friends (including Robert McNamara, who had ordered the classified report in the first place), she wavered in making her decision. But in spite of the negative opinions of her all-male board, she finally decided to rely on the First Amendment of the Constitution and its declaration of freedom of the press. And she fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
This is a fascinating piece of our history, but the way that Spielberg tells it makes it even more compelling. Hanks as Bradlee is tough, uncompromising, and determined. Streep, who grows from a weepy, uncertain woman to a staunch leader and activist, is, as always, sympathetic and convincing. And the relationship and by-play between her and Hanks adds a human touch and sometimes a smile to this real-life drama.
And Spielberg presents it as real life, having the myriad characters interrupting each other, all talking at the same time, and shouting their opinions at the top of their lungs. Never politely talking one at a time and everybody listening. It couldn’t be more real, even though it’s as difficult for the audience to differentiate the arguments as it must be for the actors. But you get the idea.
The parallel message of this film, although never specifically mentioned, is how the authoritarian behavior of a succession of presidents apparently set the precedent for what became the norm in the behavior of each of the presidents that followed. And every president has apparently wanted a war of his very own. Hold that thought, North Korea.
“The Post” opened at the Laemmle theaters last Friday, but will be playing at a multitude of Los Angeles theaters very soon. Search your newspaper or computer for locations and times.