Given his druthers, Donald Trump would destroy our freedoms. He would undermine the First Amendment of the United States of America, eliminating any and all publications (no matter the medium) which disagree with any of his stances and/or dare to question him and his integrity. Failing his ability to shutter those publications, he would delegitimize them, referring to them as “fake news.” This has nothing to do with the good our country, merely the petulant whims of the person who is supposed to be upholding our Constitution.
Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and the rest of the cast of “The Post,” on the other hand, would let our President know that this sort of thing has been tried before. The results did not come out in Richard Nixon’s favor.
It is impossible to watch Spielberg’s latest (written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer), the tale of “The Washington Post” attempting to break news about The Pentagon Papers, without seeing the obvious comparisons to our current President’s war on the press. From discussions of solidarity among papers, to statements that the President cannot dictate what can and cannot be published, to talk about the potential problems when members of an outlet are too close to those who cover, “The Post” may be telling a true story about Katharine Graham (Streep) and Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and this particular run-in with the Nixon White House, but it is also clearly sending a message to today’s press and Donald Trump.
Movies tend to be rated on a scale (they certainly are on this site), and everyone who sees a film not only forms an opinion, but is entitled to that opinion. As a critic, part of my job is to both analyze the various elements of the movie and to put those elements—and the whole film—into a larger context. Generally speaking, parts of this are subjective. That is, if a character quotes a line from another work in a film, it is a fact that such a quote occurred, the decision as to whether the quote adds to the film or instead subtracts from it is more subjective.
In the case of “The Post,” it is a fact that the comparisons to Donald Trump’s attempts to undermine the First Amendment are present. It is also a fact that the First Amendment is important. Furthermore, it is a fact that a President attempting to undermine the Constitution of the United States, or any of its Amendments, is dangerous. The President labeling anything he does not like as “fake news,” or pushing the courts to prevent publication of news, is indeed undermining the press and the First Amendment. This, too, is a fact (much like the President, you don’t have to like that it’s a fact, but denying it doesn’t lessen its reality, it only pushes you into dangerous, bad, territory).
You, of course, don’t have to like that “The Post” is doing this. I, for one, think it’s a hugely important message that Spielberg is putting on the screen, but it is not one that is delivered in as rousing a fashion as it might be. Despite good performances from Hanks, Streep, Bruce Greenwood, Jesse Plemons, Matthew Rhys, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, and more, moments that should be exciting are almost clinical in nature. Not bad, just distant, detached.
More close on an emotional level is the film’s look at Katharine Graham’s fight to be accepted as the publisher of “The Washington Post.” The audience gets to watch her struggles with forces both internal and external as she asserts herself before men who are not used to dealing with a woman in such a role. As with the paper having to go up against Nixon, the need for Graham to fight this fight is infuriating, but—again as with the paper—Graham is in the right.
There is something of a sense, perhaps, that Spielberg is preaching to the choir with this film. I may have given you all of those facts above, but if you’re a supporter of Trump, I suspect you bristled at them and even, perhaps, decided that they were incorrect. However, like Graham and like the paper, they’re not wrong. And, that is the point – it feels as though this movie is aiming at the people who accept these facts before ever going in. It is less about delving into the argument, than stating the issue. The argument about whether the press can/should publish information about The Pentagon Papers is indeed presented, but it doesn’t give the sense of ever truly being in doubt. The people on the wrong side in this film are the money guys and as Graham struggles to decide whether to publish, it is easier for her to remove friendship from the equation, and harder for her to remove the money question.
All of the above said, you should see “The Post.” You should see it because Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep are brilliant opposite one another, and the scenes with just the two of them crackle with intensity. You should see it because it’s about an important moment in our history. You should see it because that moment is relevant today. You should see it because, no matter how you feel about the guy in the Oval Office, this nation is bigger than the person behind the desk, and sacrificing our Constitution and its Amendments for the person behind the desk is wrong.
And that, too, is a fact.
photo credit: 20th Century Fox