Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, tells the story of the Washington Post’s decision in 1971 to publish parts of the Pentagon Papers, which detailed the government’s secret conduct during the Vietnam War. It’s a whimper of a movie, throwing bad history at the screen to make a clumsy but ever so 2018 political point.
So how do you make a two-hour drama out of a decision? There are only so many scenes you can shoot (though Spielberg tries them all) of The Suits saying “You can’t publish!” while Meryl and Tom emote “We must!” You more or less have to override real history in favor of a lesson, whitewash a choice made in part to make the Post look better against its competition of the time, the Washington Star, and sideline the real hero, Daniel Ellsberg.
A bit of history: Ellsberg first leaked the Pentagon Papers exclusively to the New York Times; despite what “The Post” claims, the Washington newspapers were far too provincial to qualify as peers. The Pentagon Papers were a 7,000-page classified history of the Vietnam War, from 1945 to 1968, prepared under the order of Kennedy’s and Johnson’s secretary of defense, Robert McNamara. We now know that McNamara, while publicly supportive of the war, was privately consumed by doubt, and the Papers were his act of contrition. Times reporters spent three months reading and verifying the documents. Simultaneously, the Times set its legal team to preparing the now-classic First Amendment defense it knew would be needed.
The risks were huge: no one had ever published such classified documents before, and the senior staff at the Times feared they would go to jail under the Espionage Act (though only Ellsberg was actually charged as such). The Nixon administration got a court to order the Times to cease publication after an initial flurry of excerpts were printed in June 1971, the first time in American history a federal judge censored a newspaper. Things got so dicey that the Times’ outside counsel actually quit the night before his first appearance in court, claiming the newspaper had indeed broken the law. It was only at that point that the Washington Post obtained an excerpt from the Pentagon Papers.
The movie brushes past the Times’ rigorous fact checking, raw courage, and masterful First Amendment legal defense to focus on the Post’s big risk: the paper was about to offer its stock publicly, and problems with the government might have hurt share prices. Nixon shut down the Post’s publishing anyway after only two days, and the paper went to court. The Post’s lawyers made no First Amendment case, more afraid of being found in contempt of the injunction against the Times than the Espionage Act. The Supreme Court rolled their briefs into the Times‘ case, and the landmark victory for the First Amendment was issued as New York Times Company v. United States. The New York paper won the Pulitzer Prize. The Post did not.
But hell, you’re Steven Spielberg. You have the True Guardians of Liberal-Lite, Blue America’s mom and dad, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. What does history have to do with your movie anyway? It all begs the question of why Spielberg chose to tell the story of the Pentagon Papers, which is really the story of the New York Times with its spine still in place via a secondary player, the Washington Post.
“The Post” has no real interest in the Pentagon Papers except as a plot device, almost an excuse needed to make this movie. It takes a now-universally praised and thus safe (for the same reason, “Saving Private Ryan” was set in the Good War instead of god-awful Vietnam) episode of journalism as a launching point to attack what it sees as the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken a free press. Today’s WaPo, under the ownership of one of America’s richest liberal capitalists, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, has refashioned itself as the newspaper of the #Resistance, declaring in undergraduate essay-level pseudo-Orwellian prose its motto to be “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
By setting the story back in ye olde timey 1971, Spielberg can appropriate Daniel Ellsberg instead of Obama-era whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden who still hover near traitor status for many. Tom Hanks himself gave the game away, calling Ellsberg a hero in an interview while refusing to characterize Snowden at all.
What was clearly the right thing to do to help bring down (Trump stand-in) Richard Nixon can become quite morally ambiguous when Obama is in the hot seat; hence the historical setting. The Obama administration charged more people under the Espionage Act for alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined, including Nixon’s. But by more or less bypassing the core issue both whistleblowers and real journalists stare down—there are higher goals than obedience to government—Spielberg ducks the real lesson in favor of an easy shot at the current administration.
“I think our country has a love-hate relationship with whistleblowers,” attorney Jesselyn Radack, who helped represent Manning, Snowden and—full disclosure—me, told The American Conservative. “I wish I could be optimistic about ‘The Post’ shifting the needle of public opinion. However, it’s a hopelessly mismatched tug of war when the entire apparatus of the U.S. government—whether led by Obama or Trump—holds one end of the rope.”
Using the old Washington Post as the launching point for what is essentially just a trope-ish op-ed (Freedom of the press, good! Republican presidents, bad! Journos, Indiana Jones!) also allows Spielberg to show 1971 exactly as 2018 wants to remember it. Meryl and Tom, playing Katherine and Ben, are perfect role models for how men and women should work together, respectful and considerate, with no mansplaining or crude remarks to be found.
Meanwhile, the newsroom is era-appropriate white and male, but everyone is on their best behavior for the camera: no fanny slapping, no one addressing the clerical staff as “honey” or demanding coffee. The New York Times of 1971 was too male, and even Spielberg wouldn’t have been able to shoehorn a female protagonist into that picture, never mind create a hit-you-over-the-head subplot of Katherine Graham morphing from Betty Crocker into a fierce, persistent 2018 role model for all women and girls (one of the later shots in the film shows Streep leaving the Supreme Court to gently part a crowd of adoring young women, in halo-like glow over her proto-feminism). There is no subtlety to the message. Spielberg might as well have costumed Streep in a pink pussy hat for the boardroom scenes.
Nobody expects movies to be 100 percent historically accurate, but “The Post” twists facts to present a battle that wasn’t really fought this way at all. The film is an effective piece of polemic, taking full advantage of the skills of some of America’s most talented practitioners, who one imagines believe they made a Movie That Matters For Our Times. Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks, all supporters of Hillary Clinton, couldn’t get her elected, so they did the next best thing. They created a little confection likely to win multiple Oscars and play forever on Amazon Prime that beats up the guy she lost to.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Follow him on Twitter @WeMeantWell.