The Post gives us a story of a financially struggling newspaper taking on the U.S. government in a classic First Amendment-vs.-national security showdown – and it gets a few things wrong.
Katharine Graham is a 1970s female newspaper publisher, working in a man’s world. Her board at The Washington Post is all male. Her newsroom is nearly all male. And when she chats on the phone with a politician or big wig, it is almost always – you guessed it – with a man.
Few people believe she’s qualified, but perhaps that’s to be expected. She was handed the position only after her father and then her husband, Phil – both publishers of the newspaper – passed away. With the newspaper being family-owned, she was next in line.
“The only reason she’s running the paper is because Phil died,” a board member says.
But despite her inexperience, she has a big decision to make. The Post’s reporters have dug up a secret copy of the so-called Pentagon Papers – a lengthy government-commissioned study that showed (among other things) the U.S. intensified its involvement in the Vietnam War despite major doubts it would succeed.
Even before The Washington Post uncovered the documents, a federal judge had issued an injunction stopping The New York Times from reporting on the Pentagon Papers for fear it would harm national defense interests.
Will Graham allow Post editor Ben Bradlee to publish his reporters’ stories about the Pentagon Papers in defiance of a judge’s order – an action that could land her and Bradlee in jail?
It’s all part of the new movie The Post (PG-13), which is in theaters and stars Meryl Streep as Kay Graham and Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee. It was directed by Steven Spielberg and recounts the story of The Washington Post’s decision to publish stories about the Pentagon Papers – stories that sparked a Supreme Court hearing and victory over the Nixon White House.
Viewed without a political lens, the movie can be riveting: A financially-struggling newspaper takes on the U.S. government in a classic First Amendment-vs.-national security showdown – with newspaper deadlines and Nixon-style tactics as a backdrop.
Of course, this film cannot be viewed without a political lens, and Spielberg and The Post take a firm stance. Their position is clear: The Vietnam War was a mistake; the government lied about it; Nixon was a bad guy; the Pentagon Paper leakers were heroes; and Graham and Bradlee were champions of the First Amendment. If those aren’t your positions, then you may want to skip this movie (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson also are blamed for everything, but only in passing).
Still, The Post raises several questions about freedom and the press that are worth a 21st-century discussion – in the classroom and around the dinner table.
Minimal/moderate. The film’s only violence takes place in the opening minutes, when we watch U.S. soldiers fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. We see soldiers carrying rifles, and several of them are shot. Moments later, some are carried off on stretchers.
Excessive, with 50 coarse words: s—t (13), GD (6), a—(6), JC (5), misuse of “God” (4), h-ll (3), d—n (3), SOB (2), misuse of “Jesus” (2), misuse of “Christ” (2), OMG (1), f-word (1), pi-s (1), b—tard (1).
Other Positive Elements
The Post’s stances on freedom of the press are commendable. Bradlee says during one poignant moment: “We have to be the check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?” The media is an easy target in today’s culture, but imagine a modern society without local newspapers on any level – even small towns — and then apply Bradlee’s words. Who will cover (boring) town council meetings? Who will uncover corruption? Who will hold the mayor accountable? Sure, we can rely on citizen journalists, but not every community has someone with such commitment and skills. The more people who are covering it, the better.
Other Stuff You Might Want To Know
We see a character steal the Pentagon Papers. Someone says about its conclusion: “They knew we couldn’t win and still sent boys to die.” Lots of people in the film smoke.
Some scholars argue that our American model of checks and balances was based on a firm belief in human depravity – that it was unwise to give one person or one branch too much power. Otherwise, they would abuse it. Thus, the Founders designed three branches of government within the U.S. Constitution. Those same Founders and that same Constitution also guaranteed the freedom of the press. Conflicts were unavoidable.
The Post raises a host of questions.
What are the limits of a free press? Could it legally have published battle plans ahead of D-Day? (As one judge asks.) Does it have the right to publish military secrets that might endanger soldiers’ lives? Can it legally publish transcripts of conversations between world leaders – an action that could weaken national security and relations between nations?
The questions about the government’s power are just as tricky. When, if ever, can the government step in and tell the press it cannot publish military or government secrets? And if it gets away with that, won’t it try to push the envelope even further the next time – as the government always does? Who decides what should and should not be published? Isn’t this our government, after all?
There are no easy answers, but it’s a lot simpler if both sides are responsible.
I’ve been in journalism more than 25 years – as an editor and writer. I’ve held stories back because I didn’t think it was responsible to publish them. And I’ve seen stories held that I thought should be published. To the credit of The Post, Graham and Bradlee have similar discussions about the need of responsibility.
What I Liked
Watching old-school journalism at work: the typewriters, the 70s-era newsrooms, the typesetting, the presses. And watching reporters digging days and weeks for the story.
What I Didn’t Like
The excessive language. And the movie’s comical portrayal of Nixon. Spielberg might as well have cued Darth Vader’s theme (The Imperial March).
Thumbs Up … Or Down?
Thumbs up for its entertainment value. Thumbs down for its placing all the blame on Nixon.
- Should The Post have published the Pentagon Papers?
- Should there be limits on what the press can publish? If so, who decides?
- Should the government be able to stop the media from publishing certain stories? If so, what should the punishment be?
- What did you think of the movie’s portrayal of Graham, Bradlee and Nixon?
Entertainment rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 2 out of 5 stars.
The Post is rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence.