“In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government.” (Justice Hugo Black, The New York Times v. The United States)
Steven Spielberg’s The Post is not really about the Pentagon Papers, the leaked secret documents that showed that the American government had lied to the people through four administrations from Truman to Johnson. The publication of those documents in 1971 brought the freedom of the press into the nation’s consciousness. The Post is really about the courage that is sometimes needed to serve the public good and to make sure the government is serving the people.
The film is set at The Washington Post, a paper that aspired to national importance, but hadn’t quite achieved it. When the New York Times published the first stories about the Pentagon Papers, Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sets his staff to work trying to find a way to get a copy. Soon, one of them tracks down Daniel Ellsberg, the former analyst who leaked the documents. After the Nixon Administration was granted an injunction against the Times to stop publication, Bradlee and his team begin to create their own stories. But it falls on publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) to make the decision—one that could lead to charges of contempt of court and treason.
Bradlee, in this film, is a stereotypical hard-nosed journalist. He is in search of the truth and believes that the truth needs to be known. We get the sense that he and his reporters would easily be willing to face prosecution over the truth and free press. But it is Graham who is the focus for the difficult decision. Katherine Graham became publisher after the suicide of her husband. The paper had been in her family for decades, but she hadn’t really been involved in it. She was a wife, mother, and social hostess in Washington. She is just beginning to establish herself as a business woman (and really not accepted by some on her board). This decision could have devastating consequences for the company—possibly destroying the paper her father and husband had cared so much about. As deadlines loom, legal issues arise, her various advisors give many opinions, her past friendships with people like the Kennedy’s Johnsons, and Robert McNamara weigh on her. But she must finally choose the road the paper will take.
Spielberg is not new to making historical films. (Previous films include The Empire of the Sun, Munich, Schindler’s List and Bridge of Spies). One of the hallmarks of such films is that they are less about the historical events than they are about the personal stories we are seeing. That is true of The Post. The relationship between Bradlee and Graham is one of respect. They each have different priorities. But they each take their responsibilities—to the paper, reporters, and the nation—seriously. As they face the challenge represented in the Pentagon Papers, they push one another, eventually finding ways to help each to reach their bests.
It’s hard to think of a time when a film that highlights the First Amendment is not timely, but it certainly seems especially so with this film. The adversary relationship between the press and government seems to have grown ever more forceful of late. When tweets take the place of serious discussion, the people are not well served. When an administration dismisses negative stories as “fake news”, the people are not served. When governments seek to hide important information, the people are not served. As journalism continues to evolve (and often devolve) in the information age, we need to be able to depend on a free press to (as Justice Black said) “remain forever free to censure the Government.”
Photos Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation