Friday, December 8, 2017

The First Amendment, A Woman And The Executive Branch, Then And Now

Then-Washington Post owner Katherine Graham and the Post's executive editor Ben Bradlee in 1971. 
Associated Press

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, December 8, 2017

As a title Steven Spielberg's zeitgeist-seizing "The Post" refers to at least three things: the famed Washington, D.C. newspaper, and far more cleverly the post of government documents in a story that would grind the Vietnam War to a halt.  The Post - the consecration of a news story about U.S. government lies, in print in a widely-read newspaper.  That's the quintessential reinforcing of freedom of the press Mr. Spielberg constantly reminds us of here.  The film's title and the movie itself is less about the past than about now. 

The third meaning of the title "The Post" is about the Internet.  When a writer completes a story and publishes it today -- it is a "post", a live electronic publishing of an online story or blog entry -- a stamp into the public record.  Any government pushback today against a post affects everyone.  Which is what both the New York Times and Washington Post -- still proud journalistic rivals to this day -- tried and ultimately succeeded against prevention of in 1971 -- publish, only after court intervention and not before the U.S. Supreme Court smacked down the Times in its efforts to publish government papers revealing its generations of lies about Vietnam.

"The Post" is a riveting spectacle of process, deliberation, evaluation, intricacy and quality control, the First Amendment and by extension the male control of a woman's voice in the workplace.  The new feminist movement dawned in the late 1960s when newsrooms for most women were anathema.  As newly-minted Post owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) wades alone through a man's world of media titans and executives, she is measured up like fine-column print to her deceased Post-owner husband and shunted aside, her ideas appropriated by men at boardroom meetings.  Men, including the biggest Pinocchio of his time, Ms. Graham's friend and defense secretary Robert McNamara, keep her shackled, and a big payday looms if she sells her "small-town newspaper".

If any of this sounds familiar (the onset of media mergers and later "The Insider" issues clouding CBS news content and the CBS-Westinghouse merger) it's partly because Mr. Spielberg's dedication to detail and methodical rigor crystallize points about the urgent present day conflict of government, business and media.  Not to mention U.S. presidents (Bill Clinton) who ushered in consolidation of media empires (Telecommunications Act of 1996).  You see rich investors and shadowy well-dressed figures in Mr. Spielberg's "Post" newspaper halls seething and looming large in the foreground and background, just waiting to pounce ahead to 2017 and billionaire Post owner Jeff Bezos.

Ms. Streep is marvelous here, sometimes excellent as she does some of her best film work in years.  As Ms. Graham she breathes in the weight of the world and you see it.  She's the focal point of a huge decision, one that also opens the floodgates for women, a fact the screenwriters and director wisely salute in the film's final act.  The array of crucial supporting performances are even better, pitched perfectly and economically, each performer almost unrecognizable.

Mr. Spielberg's targets in "The Post" are bipartisan, with a continuous through-line to the present.  You hear Vietnam and another generation thinks of George W. Bush and the Iraq invasion.   In "The Post" when a line is spoken to despise New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan in 1971 I flashed forward to candidate W. and Cheney at a campaign stop talking contemptuously about reporter Adam Clymer of the New York Times in 2000.  Interestingly that same year Mr. Clymer wrote about Mr. Nixon and his reported use of mood-altering drugs.

Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham and Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee in Steven Spielberg's drama "The Post".  Fox

Most conclusively and resonantly of all, "The Post", a cool straight-line thriller about protecting sacred institutions serving the public good, is camouflaged in irony and snark, cheekily thumbing its nose at Donald, using Richard Nixon, the man he imitates, to do so.  This excellent, buoyant film connects megalomaniac tyrants who want to shut down the Fourth Estate.  

Such dangerous, bloated figures of power, marginalized and isolated so smartly in "The Post" as telephone voices (Henry Kissinger) or small, insecure paranoiacs in window frames (Mr. Nixon), are a primary target of Mr. Spielberg and a sharp, talky script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer.  The assemblage of direction and dialogue are as irresistible as the obvious metaphors.  Then contrast this with Post executive editor Ben Bradlee (a bristling Tom Hanks) in several scenes as a towering figure, or with bent knee and leg filling almost a whole frame in one scene at a desk -- emphasize that the mightiest power in America is the press, not the government.

Multifaceted, "The Post" doesn't forget its origins nor does it eschew nostalgia.  Mr. Spielberg's film revels in "we the people" personality and in the personalities that not only shaped the news but oversaw the making of it.  It is in these moments that "The Post" warms and wins.  We see people, and people as collaborators.  We see the friendly trustworthy face that is Walter Cronkite's. 

Such references to Mr. Cronkite are both comforting and distancing because today trusted faces have vanished (Dan Rather is one of the lone recurring echoes reminding us), replaced by talking heads who say mostly nothing at all.  They can't be trusted and those interviewing them leave us as skeptical.  Retractions and betrayals happen more now (Judith Miller, Jayson Blair, etc) it seems, than before.  The news personalities in the 1970s offscreen were bigger than some of the ones on it.  People like Mr. Bradlee, who died in 2014, were institutions unto themselves.

Though it has many male figures and a few female figures in its midst "The Post" cloaks itself in intimacy and camaraderie.  There's the bond between sources and those trusted to protect them, and the care in genuinely connecting on a human level to them and those in the newsroom to the point where real conversations happened.  People really read the news.  They adorned it.  Treated it with respect.  There was real abiding pride in reportage and its results.  The mechanics of the printing press, the building blocks of words, the construction of columns, the ink, the keys -- these are treated as sensual elements in Mr. Spielberg's film, luxuriated over like dripping dark chocolate in a television ad and handled with care -- are a dramatic opposite to a succession of sloppy, malevolent U.S. presidential administrations who took needless millions of lives by lying for power's sake and save-face cowardice.

Journalists were stressed out by the challenges of the Pentagon Papers but seemed happier, and took on that challenge of holding power accountable with relish.  "You'd go to jail to end the war wouldn't you?", says one Daniel Ellsberg, a quasi-forgotten man in some respects in real life (though he has a new book out) but not in "The Post".  The answer to Mr. Ellsberg's pivotal question comes somewhat haltingly.  There aren't many newsroomers who would die on that kind of sword now.  Instead there are male journalists, news reporters and personalities finally being fired for sexually harassing female colleagues.  "The Post"'s final parting shot is sublime and shows that regardless of pride in news, history continues.  Will we learn from it, or keep repeating it? 

("The Post" opens on December 22.)

Also with: Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys, Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Carrie Coon, Pat Healy.

"The Post" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language and brief war violence.  The film's running time is two hours and two minutes.

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