You don’t have to be an old newspaper dinosaur like me to be held spellbound by the splendid sort-of-new movie “The Post,” but it helps.
As the writer of a review in The Washington Post itself put it, “Steven Spielberg’s exhilarating drama ‘The Post’ is about a subject that’s dear to the heart of journalists: themselves!” Indeed. This well-written, well-directed and well-acted film resonated powerfully and personally with me in several ways.
Still, I can’t emphasize enough that this is a show that you, Dear Reader, regardless of your background, will not want to miss. It will be at The Sunrise in downtown Southern Pines from March 2 to March 8. I went ahead and saw it at the multiplex so that I could get this written now.
“The Post” begins with some scenes of American troops being caught up in terrifying jungle swamp combat in Vietnam in 1966. Accompanying them is Marine veteran and State Department military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who is increasingly discouraged by the seeming hopelessness of what he is witnessing.
So is Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who shares his own feelings of doubt with Ellsberg on the flight home. Yet as soon as he lands back in Washington, McNamara is once again publicly spouting the optimistic line of the Johnson administration.
Years later, as things grow even worse, Ellsberg feels compelled to surreptitiously photocopy some secret government reports about the rocky progress of the war and the lies told about it, which he leaks to The New York Times. These are the Pentagon Papers, which Attorney General John Mitchell goes to court in an effort to prevent The Times, and later The Post, from printing.
The conflict balloons into an intense struggle in which the government is trying to keep the press from printing the truth, and we see a raving Nixon issuing threats in the White House. Contemporary viewers can’t help but find it all sounding way too familiar at this time when a president rails about “fake news” and (just this week) suggests that Democrats who declined to stand for his State of the Union address might be guilty of “treason.”
All this ultimately drops into the lap of Katharine Graham, beautifully and sensitively played by Meryl Streep. Graham would have preferred to remain a wife and mother. But, with the recent suicide of her husband, she has found herself reluctantly thrust into the role of publisher of The Washington Post.
For a time, her reaction to the Pentagon Papers crisis seems timid and indecisive, complicated by fears of discouraging investors at a time when the Post company is going public. As the case escalates all the way to the Supreme Court, we see her rise to the occasion in a most gratifying, if subtle, way.
All this is happening in the early 1970s, a time when I was first breaking into the newspaper business, including a stint at another metro daily, The Miami Herald. The movie’s scenes of that time all come across with perfect authenticity: smoke-filled newsrooms with reporters in dated clothing clicking away on manual typewriters. Pages being laboriously composed by hand from lines of hot lead type. Papers streaming off a roaring old press, whisking up multistory conveyor belts, and being loaded onto trucks that go speeding away.
It was a different journalistic world then, and one that I can’t help missing at times. People mostly got their news from papers that rolled off those presses once a day, or at most a few times, with big gaps in between — as opposed to today’s nonstop, unrelenting 24-hour news cycle. And journalists swore oaths of objectivity. “The Post” brings all that back most effectively.
Forgive me for ending on one little experience I had sometime back in the late 1980s. As editor of The Salisbury Post, I got to go to annual newspaper conventions, often in Washington. On one of those trips, long after both the Pentagon Papers case and the Watergate affair were history, I decided to pay a late afternoon visit to The Washington Post.
As the taxi let me off at a side entrance and I entered and started up a deserted stairway, who should be walking down, apparently on the way home, but a middle-aged woman I recognized immediately. It was Katharine Graham, who graciously took me up and showed me around that fabled newsroom.
It was all over in a few minutes as we went our separate ways. I don’t remember her as looking a lot like Meryl Streep, but it’s not the kind of thing one ever forgets.
Contact Steve Bouser at (910) 693-2470 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.