Trump and Nixon vs the media

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The Post (M). Director: Steven Spielberg. Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood. 116 minutes

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in The PostAs America endures one of the most authoritarian and chaotic presidencies in its history, Richard Nixon has, for obvious reasons, been a recurring touchstone for many commentators. Just this week John Dean, the former White House attorney who played a central role in the Watergate cover-up and the subsequent investigation, was compelled in an interview with the UK Telegraph to describe Trump as even 'more dangerous' (because less competent) than Nixon.

Given the clear comparisons, it's no surprise Steven Spielberg pulled out all the stops to bring The Post out ASAP (he began work on it while completing post-production on his effects heavy blockbuster Ready Player One). One thing Trump has in common with Nixon is an antagonistic relationship with the media, and The Post takes as its focus Nixon's attempts to quash the publication of the leaked Pentagon Papers, with their damning revelations about America's role in Vietnam.

Several former New York Times journalists have objected to the film, claiming it focuses inordinately on the work of the Washington Post while downplaying the Times' role in breaking the story, for which the newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. They do have a point. The Times broke the story and set the stage for a legal showdown, while the Post entered the fray relatively late, after the Nixon administration had succeeded in obtaining an injunction against the Times.

At the same time the focus is sensible. For one, it establishes a sense of continuity between these events and Watergate, which the Post would uncover soon after. It functions as a kind of de facto prequel to All the President's Men, the 1976 film about the journalists who broke Watergate, which here serves as a tonal and aesthetic yardstick — even Hanks' portrayal of Post editor Ben Bradlee seems to channel Jason Robards' Oscar-winning performance as Bradlee in the earlier film.

Also, The Post isn't about the breaking of the story, per se. To the extent that it is a journalistic procedural in the tradition of ATPM, it follows Post journalist Ben Bagdikian's (Odenkirk) efforts to track down the Times' source and take up the torch that the Times has been forced temporarily to lay down. We see too the Post team sifting the thousands of pages of unsorted documents, grasping the threads and trying to weave the narratives that are in the public interest.

But Spielberg, and the script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, look around from the minutiae of investigative journalism to absorb the human struggles and other pertinent challenges faced by their protagonists. Publisher Kay Graham (Streep) inherited the Post from her husband, who inherited it from her own father, and is struggling to assert herself in an industry dominated by opinionated men, while at the same time weighing commercial concerns against editorial integrity.

 

"The Post becomes less about historical particulars than the moral challenge that confronts all investigative media of high integrity working in a hostile political environment."

 

She and Bradlee, as senior figures of the small but respected newspaper, have both been presidents' friends, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Greenwood) — upon whom the Pentagon Papers reflect badly — remains a close confidante of hers. Both Graham and Bradlee are compelled to reflect at length on these friendships, and whether they have led them to be derelict in their responsibilities as newspaper people to report truthfully in the public interest.

As such the stakes are high both personally and professionally, with the prospect of criminal charges if they publish in defiance of the injunction against the Times just one possible outcome. By focusing on these characters and circumstances, then, The Post becomes less about historical particulars than the moral challenge that confronts all investigative media of high integrity working in a hostile political environment. In short it is a period film that is very much for our times.

 

 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Post, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Richard Nixon, Donald Trump


 

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Existing comments

As one who was a tiny part of the anti-Vietnam war movement, it seemed to me at the time that the US media was either complicit in deceiving the public or was itself deceived. This movie takes the view that it was deceived by a series of US presidents - a reasonable interpretation. The Post did publish, backed up (de facto) by The NY Times and the relationship between the US public and its President changed permanently. Kay Graham's role in this drama is convincingly portrayed by Meryl Street but Tom Hanks is less convincing as the Post's editor Ben Bradlee. The movie does overstate their (and The Post's) roles but movies do tend to oversimplify real-life dramas. For me, the standout performance was Bob Odenkirk's as Ben-Hur Bagdikian, child survivor of the Armenian genocide and leading journalism and media ethics doyen. There is now an opening for a movie based on the life of this remarkable man. I'm looking forward to it.
Jolyon Sykes | 10 March 2018


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