Simon Nelson reviews The Post, in cinemas now
Steven Spielberg’s film was designed to win Oscars. With big name actors, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, this could have been an exciting story about press freedom and government cover-ups, and a positive message of the good side winning against the bad and dishonest.
It is the story of the 1971 Pentagon Papers. Utterly shocking when first the New York Times, then the Washington Post and others papers published them, they documented the US policy in Vietnam since the Second World War. How US’s secretive interventions had backed up the vicious Diem regime in South Vietnam, helped to rig elections, covered up human rights abuses and committed troops to fight against the North Vietnamese well before it was made public. The papers showed that since 1966 successive US administrations had thought the war was unwinnable.
Unfortunately, The Post manages to make the story as dull as the process that the original whistle-blowers had to go through — of photocopying 30 years of documents of American policy in Vietnam.
Newspapers from the Express to the Telegraph have been full of praise for the film. Why wouldn’t they? It presents the establishment media as being on an unending search for the truth. A far cry away from hacking the phones of celebrities or the family of a murder victim. Spielberg also puts in some none too subtle hints about the parallels with Trump’s “fake news” agenda.
But as a political thriller, the left me shuffling in my seat and checking my watch.
The main protagonists in the film are Ben Bradlee (Hanks) the executive editor of the Washington Post and Kay Graham (Streep) the owner. Bradlee is determined to improve the quality of the paper, to get out the big stories which speak truth to power. This all sits uneasily with his previous cosy relationships with the Kennedy administration.
Graham, who has had the paper thrust on her after the suicide of her husband has to battle sexism in the boardroom and her own friendship with former defence secretary Robert McNamara who had the papers put together, as she decides whether to risk a stock market flotation by publishing classified contents.
The most effective parts of the film show the real footage of presidents making statements about the war while we are shown how these statements are lies. Similarly, the footage of Nixon pacing round the Oval office making increasingly tense phone calls about the conduct of the war is far more thrilling then watching Hanks chain smoke.
While the film suggests the Pentagon Papers were a watershed for newspapers and their relationships with politicians, the succeeding 50 years shows different.