You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Post Plays on Nostalgia for Nixon-Era Journalism

Steven Spielberg casts Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham as heroes in a slick drama, despite their complicated ties to power.

20th Century Fox

The Post—Steven Spielberg’s movie about the Washington Post during the publication of the Pentagon Papers—is, like many of his movies, a David-and-Goliath story. The theme of a little guy taking on a mighty power—inevitably heartwarming and a bit corny—has dominated Spielberg’s work in some form since Duel, a 1971 television movie he made when he was 24. In Duel the Goliath is an 18-wheel tanker truck operated by a man in cowboy boots with a bad case of road rage. The David is a Plymouth sedan driven by a mild-mannered traveling salesman. The car’s driver survives, and the truck runs off a cliff and crashes like an enormous leaking corpse. The pattern persists: Just think of Indiana Jones deadpanning, “The Nazis, I hate these guys.” In The Post, Spielberg sets the Goliath of the Nixon administration against the publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks).

If the story of a bullying president and an embattled press corps sounds familiar, that’s because Spielberg fast-tracked the script’s production last spring. Casting Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, who have both been vocal critics of the Trump administration, in the lead roles is more than a little on the nose. The historical allegory is neat, and obviousness isn’t a flaw in a protest movie. But as a movie about journalism, The Post substitutes righteousness for suspense, and legal and financial distresses for the paranoid dread that marks the classics of the genre, which happen to have been made during and just after the Nixon administration.

The Post opens with the familiar Hollywood shorthand for the Vietnam War: American men in camouflage, a dirt clearing amid jungle vegetation, the sounds of helicopter propellers and Creedence Clearwater Revival. The novel element is a typewriter. It belongs to Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), the RAND Corporation analyst employed by the Department of Defense to embed with the troops and contribute to its history of the Vietnam War. He would become the whistleblower, leaking thousands of pages of secret documents first to the New York Times and then to the Post. Ellsberg’s turn to dissent is handled with economy in The Post. Flying home from Vietnam, he witnesses Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), defense secretary to Kennedy and Johnson, ranting about how the war is only getting worse for the U.S., and in the next scene watches him say the opposite to reporters.

After that prologue, the stress falls on Graham, Bradlee, and their newspaper, and The Post plays like a prequel to All the Presidents Men. But the contrast between the two pictures is instructive. There’s a reason why most films about journalists focus on reporters, make editors into colorful supporting characters, and all but leave out publishers. There’s no Katherine Graham character in All the Presidents Men, though Lauren Bacall, ex-wife of Jason Robards, who played Bradlee, was the filmmakers’ dream choice if the character hadn’t been written out of the script. It would have been a better movie for it, no doubt.

Directed by Alan J. Pakula, All the Presidents Men is a classic of 1970s paranoid cinema, alongside Pakula’s The Parallax View and Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (which, like All the Presidents Men, starred Robert Redford). These films pit journalists—or in the case of Condor a low-level CIA analyst turned whistleblower—against the shadowy forces of the government or secret organizations that may be colluding with the government. The Post transfers the tensions from the reporters on the ground to management, who have to reckon with the potential collateral damage to their relationships to presidents, cabinet members and lawmakers. Things aren’t so suspenseful when the shadowy government official is the heroine’s frequent dinner guest. Will McNamara stop coming over for supper if Graham publishes the Pentagon Papers? This is one of the central moral conundrums in The Post, and it’s difficult to care.

The Post brass’s close social ties to powerful people showed through in its coverage. Despite its post-Watergate image as a crusading publication, in the Pentagon Papers era the Post often went out of its way to be sympathetic to power: When Bradlee discovered that his deceased sister-in-law Mary Meyer’s diary detailed her affair with John F. Kennedy, he handed the document over to James Jesus Angleton of the CIA rather than break the story in the Post. This was in keeping with the general reluctance to report on the personal lives of politicians that characterized the era, but the culture of deference went much deeper. The gap between the Pentagon Papers’ secret narrative of the war and the story the public knew showed how dependent the press was on the government’s official narrative. Blockbusters like Seymour Hersh’s scoop on the My Lai massacre were the exception to the rule.

Ellsberg and Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), share the film’s few paranoid scenes: hushed calls from payphones, a meeting in a motel. They both accept that they might go to jail and that exposing the truth about the Vietnam War would be worth it. Meanwhile, Bradlee barks and frets from his office: He wants to compete with the Times, but he’s running from behind. While the Times was exposing state secrets, the Post put Nixon’s daughter Tricia’s wedding on the front page. (Getting access to that event is treated as a matter of grave importance, a sign of the paper’s lingering provinciality). Hanks plays Bradlee as a caricature of the charismatic crank Robards inhabited. It’s a supporting role thrust awkwardly to the film’s center.

The paper’s investors were another obstacle to defying the Nixon administration. The Post had just made an initial public offering when the Pentagon Papers were breaking news. The IPO was necessary to solidify the paper’s finances—more than once it’s mentioned that raising the share price by $3 would generate $3 million to hire 25 additional reporters (a figure that seems anachronistic, at best)—but it put the Graham family’s control of the Post at risk. The prospect of an investor revolt if Graham and Bradlee are sentenced to jail time for publishing the leaked documents leads to The Post’s moment of truth. Graham decides the paper’s mission as expressed in the IPO document outweighs all else, and journalism wins out over capitalism. The Supreme Court decides in favor of the Times and the Post, and the Graham family maintains control of the Post (as they would until 2013, when they sold to Jeff Bezos for $250 million).

Despite these unheroic conflicts of interest, the film portrays this period as a golden era for journalism. In many ways it was a golden age, but the real heroes were the whistleblowers and reporters, and that’s no slight to the real risks editors and publishers like Bradlee and Graham took. The images Spielberg deploys to show journalism in action induce nostalgia for the pre-digital age: photocopies of 4,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers spread in dozens of piles on the floor of Bradlee’s home library, being sorted seemingly at random by a few reporters; a gorgeous giant printing press with fresh editions criss-crossing on conveyor belts from floor to ceiling. The film is animated by a sense of yearning for a time when America could count on its patrician class to act in the country’s interest in the name of the Constitution. The family model of media ownership is still with us, even if the Xerox machine and the printing press seem to be on the way out, though now the families are named Murdoch and Koch, not to mention Bezos.

A pair of recent HBO documentaries set the table for The Post, offering hagiographic portraits of Bradlee and Spielberg. The Newspaperman, adapted from Bradlee’s memoir A Good Life and narrated in his voice, spends 13 minutes on Bradlee’s friendship with John F. Kennedy, and nine minutes on the Pentagon Papers. “To me,” Bradlee says, “failure to publish without a fight would brand the Post forever as an establishment tool of whatever administration was in power and end the Bradlee era before it got off the ground.” Indeed. Neither the documentary nor The Post ever ask why Bradlee and Graham didn’t have the real story of the Vietnam War before Ellsberg handed to them. They were, after all, routinely dining and vacationing with the men who made the decisions and kept the secrets.

Steven Spielberg is sentimental about the Washington Post—as he had tended to sentimentalize institutions and events throughout his career. Tom Stoppard touches on this in Susan Lacy’s Spielberg, describing the 1987 movie Empire of the Sun as “a truly great film but for me ultimately it shaded into an unnecessary softness or sentimentality. I don’t know where it comes from. But he likes and enjoys sentiment. It’s part of him.”

The sentiment evoked in The Post is righteous opposition to Richard Nixon: an easy feeling to muster decades after his landslide victories. Nixon is glimpsed a few times in crooked silhouette through the windows of the White House, his real voice heard from archival tapes. The actual man is rendered a cartoon villain in an otherwise realist film.

“I really believe in this country,” Spielberg says in the documentary, “and I always have, and it’s just resonated throughout my work: wanting to tell American stories, wanting to tell stories about principled, ethical people, who against all advice and against most everyone’s better judgment just proceed to do the right thing. Now I’m sure that sounds like I’m this kind of, you know, idealist, or some sort of a patriot, but I am a patriot, and I’m somewhat of an idealist too.”

The Post is a slick drama that will bolster rattled audiences’ faith in the fourth estate’s ability to check government wrongs, but its patriotism and idealism have an air of self-congratulation, and that’s not the spirit that will flip the House or the Senate in 2018 or the White House in 2020.