When we look back at this currently shameful nadir in American history, we will have heartening movies like Steven Spielberg's "The Post," about how the title newspaper fought a disingenuous U.S. government, to remind us of our successful defense of the 1st Amendment. It is a testament to the uses of history.
Although the film is an exciting, often heart-pounding chronicle of the Nixon-era Pentagon Papers scandal, we know full well that, just as the Korea-based "MASH" (1970) was about Vietnam, this past triumph is also crucial to the here and now.
Once again we are heroically reminded that the Founding Fathers knew what they were doing. Although each from time to time had some rather harsh things to say about the Fourth Estate, they knew its indispensable role in a free society. Indeed, while even back then there were propagandist arms of the government pretending to be objectively independent purveyors of the news, "The Post" intrepidly details how, despite claims of "fake news," honest journalism has historically prevailed to preserve democracy.
Displayed in Spielberg's fine muckrake against those who ceremoniously wrap themselves in the flag, rationalizing that it symbolizes the right to pursue their own interests, no matter how selfish, is the grand disconnect between patriot and the opportunist who parades as one. Yep, it's a bit sanctimonious, the little emotional reward the smug altruist gets for not behaving like the winner of a contest who gets to keep everything he can put in his shopping cart in an hour — only in politics it's for the length of his term in office.
In the specific instance recounted here, the malady of deceit in government to protect interests both real and imagined, is shown to have accumulated in its fraud from Truman to Eisenhower to Kennedy, and now to Nixon. It was about Southeast Asia, and whether or not communism can be stopped, y'know, the whole domino theory, since disproven but nonetheless a treachery by which thousands of lives were lost. Nutty huh, that Commie scare stuff? But how much of our failure to install a humanitarian health plan has its rotten roots in falsehoods just as shameless?
Representing all that is noble and good, Meryl Streep is Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, which was not nearly the journalistic powerhouse it is now, and Tom Hanks is Ben Bradlee, her firebrand editor. Facetiously, it is practically a tossup as to which is the greater accomplishment: that which Graham and Bradlee did to save our republic, or Streep and Hanks's portrayal of them. We are soon convinced that both are indeed the personages they play. The go get 'em dynamic they champion throws us into the crusade.
You feel good. You believe, like Victor Laszlo says to Rick in "Casablanca" (1942), "This time I know our side will win." Yet even though we know what happens, Spielberg, master of the medium, manages to maintain the suspense at every turn, educating us in the bargain. It's pretty complex, with lots of details to chew on, but screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer are able to winningly break it down to its parts without distracting us from the good fight that it was, and in the bargain informing how it paved the way for other crucial divulgences to come.
There are ubiquitous typewriters and middle class folks still smoking. Yet it is interesting to note as the adventure in truth, justice and the American way unravels, that just a short time before the equally scandalous revelations of Watergate, there is still a basic innocence across the land. That the government would conceal information about a dead-end war just to "save face" would ultimately prove shocking to great portions of the population, and especially tragic for those who lost loved ones to the smokescreen.
But the crazy thing is that while politics hasn't changed in methodology since the days of Caesar, it's amazing how old ploys, barely dusted off, prove effective in deluding just enough people to lever power over the masses. Philosopher George Santayana said: "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Well, someone's not reading. We now have a base constituency that finds it totally unfathomable, despite daily proof, that the administration they elected is dedicated to the interests of their socioeconomic antithesis. What a way to save face.
I thought of a particular movie line while cheering the ennoblement of the species that Graham and Bradlee personify in their glorious hour. It exerts a voltage that runs through your every scintilla when you know something is right and just. It comes in "All the President's Men" (1976) when Jason Robards' Ben Bradlee, after questioning Woodward and Bernstein as to the veracity of their story, looks both men in the face and decisively instructs, "Print that baby!" Similarly, watching "The Post" you're certain you can hear freedom ring.
"The Post," rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century Fox release directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys. Running time: 116 minutes
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