Some will describe the movie as a paean to the role of the press in a democracy. While true, it is an understatement akin to describing the sunset as a daily occurrence in accord with the laws of gravity. And for those who solely view a sunset as a lesson in physics, ‘The Post’ may not be your cup of tea. Because Spielberg’s masterwork is so much more grand than just that. It takes on the concepts of government tyranny, corporate tyranny and patriarchal tyranny in a masterful storytelling way. This tyrannical trio can only exist when there are few, if any, checks upon power. Spielberg’s visual artistry, aided by a stellar script and the acting prowess of Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, is a no-holds-barred statement that takes on all three forms of tyranny. Spielberg rightly views that the lessons from a somewhat obscure 1971 event are very germane for us today.
The Post delves into the story behind the Washington Post’s 1971 efforts to publish the Pentagon Papers. A New York federal judge has banned New York Times from disclosing the the details of a Pentagon report which comes to the devastating conclusion that the Vietnam War was not only unwinnable but had been so for the better part of the prior decade. The report, commissioned by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, concludes that tens of thousands of young soldiers died in a military quagmire that did little more than preserve the appearance of American military might. It was illegally released by think-tank researcher Daniel Ellsberg – the 1970s version of our current uber-leaker Edward Snowden. The Washington Post tracks down a copy of the controversial report and plans to publish it. But the Nixon White House is hell-bent to keep the document secret and goes after the Post and its publisher.
While The Post might refer to the famed newspaper which subsequently rose to fame for its reporting of Watergate debacle, the post to which Spielberg refers is more like the milepost of the important societal changes that occurred in the 1970s that made our current world possible. And it also a signpost of things to come, as our government, our commerce and the rights of minorities and women are being sorely tested by the current retrobate Trump Administration.
Spielberg’s observations about governmental tyranny are informed by the famous concurring opinions of three of our country’s greatest legal minds in the 1970s: Justices William O. Douglas, Potter Stewart and Hugo Black. Their concurrences were written in the landmark case of New York Times v. the U.S, featured in The Post. The justices wrote about the importance of an independent media as a check on power:
“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”. – Concurring opinion by Justice Hugo Black.
“The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.” – Concurring opinion by Justice Hugo Black.
“Secrecy in government is fundamentally anti-democratic, perpetuating bureaucratic errors. Open debate and discussion of public issues are vital to our national health. On public questions, there should be “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” debate.” – Concurring opinion by William O Douglas
“…..the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry — in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government.” – Concurring opinion by Potter Stewart
These timeless judicial declarations about separation of powers represent the philosophical basis of one of the pillars of the American democracy. Spielberg’s film asserts that if that pillar is compromised, the democracy upon which it is constructed begins to fail.
But Spielberg goes well beyond the role of the American press. The movie’s protagonist (Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham) is presented with a daunting devil’s bargain by her Board and the investors in the Washington Post. The banking and investing ‘elite’ who have agreed to replenish the newspaper’s coffers apply a full court press against Graham’s decision to print the Pentagon Papers stories. They threaten financial ruin and her loss of control over the newspaper that had been owned by her family for generations.
Compounding the corporate pressure, is the thinly veiled contempt that the politicians and Wall Street had for a woman running a major metropolitan newspaper. Graham was, inadvertently, thrust into the publishing seat of the paper just seven years prior due to her husband’s depression-fueled suicide. (Notably, her son suffered from the same depression and took his own life some 50 years after his father and only two days before the release of the Spielberg film).
By her own account in her 1997 memoir, Graham’s tenure as publisher of one of the nation’s foremost newspapers was the archetypal woman’s struggle to overcome the societally-imposed anxiety, insecurity and low self-esteem. She managed to not only command the esteem of her media peers, which at the time was largely a men’s club, but also earned the respect of Washington’s high-society establishment.
The Post most directly deals with Ms. Graham’s decision to sanction publication in June 1971 of the Pentagon Papers. It also hints at the impending Watergate story, that would break almost exactly one year later and would make the Washington Post the most famous newspaper on the planet. (recommended viewing assignment: All The President’s Men) Notably, Spielberg’s film doesn’t touch upon the controversial Strike of 1975 labor action, a gatepost for the economic viability of the US newspaper industry. Ms. Graham was confronted with a very ugly strike by some of the Post’s craft unions, even though the workers who printed the paper received wages comparable to the Post’s reporters. The unions chose Graham’s paper for their penultimate battle over newspaper wages and control, in large part because she was a woman and was, therefore, viewed as vulnerable. To their surprise, Graham held her ground and willed the company through a debilitating and traumatic three year struggle with those unions. The unions waged the highest profile challenge of a woman executive in business history and Graham came out of it with even greater respect for the way she rallied her company and held it together. Wisely, the film doesn’t deal with this chapter in Graham’s ascent to acceptance, as it might have gone on too long. But The Post chronicles Graham’s ascendancy into a full-fledged female powerhouse who would later be role model for women in the media world.
Graham’s feminist legacy is just one of the goalposts set by Spielberg. Additionally he depicts the degrading treatment of women workers, the shunning of minorities and the patriarchal glass ceilings that existed in the 1970s for anyone trying to achieve power in both Washington and the country. His statement could be phrased this way: America will only remain great if political power is checked, business expands its obligations beyond stockholders and workers of any gender, race or persuasion are accorded basic rights. He sets a high bar for which all of us should aspire. The Post shows us how that bar can be surpassed in a gripping and inspiring way.