'The Post': Pentagon Papers Put The Press Under Pressure

Dec 21, 2017
Originally published on January 2, 2018 11:04 am

Steven Spielberg's The Post is a story of journalists, government leaks, and a president who hates the press. It's about the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, but there's a reason Spielberg rushed to tell the story now.

And he really did rush: The filmmaker has long talked about making a Pentagon Papers movie, but the 2016 election made him feel it had become urgent. He got the working script just weeks after the Inauguration, rounded up his high-powered cast, and leapt into production as if he were making a little indie flick on the fly.

But this story is big. We begin with Defense secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) talking with staffers on a plane about how badly things are going in Vietnam — but then, when talking to reporters the moment they touch down, praising the progress the U.S. is making.

Staffer Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) registers this disconnect, and leaks a top-secret government report on the war to the New York Times. And whenever the Times gets a scoop, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) gets riled.

Today, of course, the Washington Post is a brand name. In 1971, it was an underfunded, family-owned paper, making its first stock offering with a perceived disadvantage. The recent death of publisher Phil Graham had left his wife Katharine (played here by Meryl Streep) at the helm.

Bradlee's ambitions were not modest, however. He just needed time. And now, suddenly, when the Post also got their own copy of the report, he had it.

Though The Post seems to fit squarely with Spielbergian histories like Lincoln and Schindler's List, there's a definite Ark-of-the-Covenant vibe to the film when the box of Pentagon Papers arrives, and an Indiana Jones urgency to the frenzy that follows, because the Post had hours to sift through thousands of pages and do what had taken the Times months.

The film isn't Spielberg's subtlest, but it has some nicely subtle touches, like when his long-lens camera peers through White House windows to catch glimpses of a president and his henchmen; we hear their actual voices from tapes Nixon was forced to give up, years later.

It's a film where the clatter of typewriters competes with the whoosh of pages sent by pneumatic tube to a pressroom where molten lead turns them into lines of type.

Tom Hanks makes for a blustery Ben Bradlee, and Meryl Streep plays Kay Graham as hesitant but steely, seemingly the only woman in the corridors of power — and ironically, the one with the power to defend the First Amendment. Bradlee can talk principle all he wants — and he does here, often — but only Graham can publish.

It's melodrama, but effective, about an age where the First Amendment means something, where a power-mad president gets called to account by a crusading press, and where a woman can not just find her voice but ..... well, as Spielberg does in The Post, I should let you fill in the blanks. Trust me, you will.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Steven Spielberg's new movie "The Post" stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. It's a story of journalists, government leaks and a president who hates the press. It's the true story of the Pentagon Papers. NPR critic Bob Mondello says there's a reason Spielberg rushed to tell the story now.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: He really did rush. Spielberg had long been talking about a Pentagon Papers film, but the 2016 election made him feel it had become urgent. He got the working script just weeks after the inauguration, rounded up his high-powered cast and leaped into production as if he were producing a little indie flick on the fly. Only this story is big, starting with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara talking with staffers on a plane about how badly things are going in Vietnam, then saying this to reporters when they touch down.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POST")

BRUCE GREENWOOD: (As Robert McNamara) Asked whether I was optimistic or pessimistic today, I can tell you that military progress over the past 12 months has exceeded our expectations. We're very encouraged by what we're seeing in Vietnam.

MONDELLO: Staffer Daniel Ellsberg registers how this doesn't jibe with what McNamara was saying on the plane or with a secret government report he has access to. When he leaks that report, The New York Times gets a huge scoop, and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POST")

TOM HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) Is anybody else tired of reading the news instead of reporting it?

MONDELLO: ...Gets riled at being scooped.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POST")

HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) We are sucking hind tit in our own backyard.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Ben, come on. It's one story.

HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) No, it's 7,000 pages detailing how the White House has been lying about the Vietnam war for 30 years. It's Truman and Eisenhower and Jack. LBJ lying - lying about Vietnam. And you think that's one story. Let's do our jobs. Find those pages.

MONDELLO: Now, today The Washington Post is a brand name. In 1971, it was an underfunded family-owned newspaper making its first stock offering with a perceived disadvantage. The recent death of publisher Philip Graham had left his wife, Katharine, at the helm.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POST")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Kay, it's unfortunate, but the buyers are obviously skittish about having a woman in charge. And it's not like it's an easy sell. It's a local paper with modest margins, modest ambitions.

MONDELLO: Bradlee's ambitions were not modest, however. He just needed time, and suddenly he had it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POST")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Turn it up.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Good evening. The New York Times late today was barred at least until Saturday from publishing any more classified documents dealing with the cause and conduct of the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration had charged that the final two parts of The Time's series would result in irreparable injury to the national defense.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Hell, why bother fighting the communists?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) I think Jefferson just rolled over in his grave.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Have the courts ever stopped a paper from publishing before?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Not in the history of the republic.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) Good thing we're not part of this mess.

HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) I'd give my left one to be in this mess.

MONDELLO: And then he was. They got the papers. Though The Post seems to fit squarely with Spielbergian histories like "Lincoln" and "Schindler's List," there's a definite Ark of the Covenant vibe when the box of Pentagon Papers arrives and an "Indiana Jones" urgency to the frenzy that follows since The Post had hours to sift through thousands of pages and do what had taken The Times months.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POST")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) I think this memo's from McNamara.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) Anybody see a mention of the RAND Viet Cong study?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) Yeah, I think this might be from your RAND study. VC are deeply committed. South Vietnam is a lost cause.

HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) Whoa.

MONDELLO: The film isn't Spielberg's subtlest, but it has some nicely subtle touches - long lens cameras peering through White House windows to catch a glimpse of a president and his henchmen as we hear their actual voices from tapes Nixon was forced to give up years later.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POST")

HENRY KISSINGER: This violates all sorts of security laws.

RICHARD NIXON: People have got to be put to the torch for this sort of thing.

MONDELLO: Put to the torch - a phrase you don't hear much today in a film where the clatter of typewriters competes with the whoosh of pages sent by pneumatic tube to a press room where molten lead turns them into lines of type. And running the show - Tom Hanks as a blustery Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POST")

MERYL STREEP: (As Kay Graham) Hello. Good morning, everybody.

MONDELLO: ...As a hesitant but steely Katharine Graham, seemingly the only woman in the corridors of power and, ironically, the one with the power to defend the First Amendment. Bradlee can talk principle all he wants.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POST")

HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) If we don't hold them accountable, I mean, my God, who will?

MONDELLO: But only Graham can publish.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POST")

STREEP: (As Kay Graham) Well, I've never smoked a cigar, and I have no problem holding Lyndon or Jack or Bob or any of them accountable. We can't hold them accountable if we don't have a newspaper.

MONDELLO: Yes, it's melodrama but effective about an age where the First Amendment means something, where a power-mad president gets called to account by a crusading press, where a woman can not just find her voice but - well, as Spielberg does in "The Post," I should let you fill in the blanks. Trust me. You will. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.