MOVIES/Ed Rampell

Raiders of the First Amendment:

Spielberg’s ‘The Post’ is Masterful Storytelling Starring Free Speech — and a Woman Leader

Move over Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. and Jurassic Park — The Post is Steven Spielberg’s best movie since his 1993 holocaust drama, Schindler’s List. Chronicling the 1971 clash between the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Nixon’s White House, Spielberg’s dramatization of the Pentagon Papers chronicle is masterful cinematic storytelling.

In the movie, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) becomes the “accidental” publisher of the Post after her father’s death and husband’s suicide. As such, she is the only gal at an all boys’ club — indeed, the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 Company. As Graham confides to her daughter Lally (Allison Brie, The Disaster Artist), when she took the helm of Washington’s daily newspaper at age forty-five, it was the first real job she’d ever had. Much of the drama centers on what screenwriter Hannah described at a post-screening discussion, “Kay finding her own voice” in the male-dominated world of journalism.

Graham’s struggle to assert herself as a leader mirrors the paper’s fight for the First Amendment as it and the Times fight over the right to print the Pentagon Papers. This is the classified treasure trove of documentation about US government disinformation regarding Indochina which RAND Corporation analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) leaked to the press. Meanwhile, the Nixon White House tries to prevent publication and threatens the possibility of prison time for violating the Espionage Act by making the documentation public.

Clandestinely commissioned by the Defense Department, the damning documents disclosed a litany of lies the Pentagon and presidents peddled to the public, including rigged elections and foreknowledge of the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngô Dình Diệm. The revelations about US duplicity are devastating, including that the real rationale for the endless war was 10% to help South Vietnam; 20% to contain communism; and 70% to avoid a humiliating defeat. In other words, tens of thousands of American and countless Vietnamese lives were lost to prevent US policymakers from embarrassment.

The film includes footage of Democratic presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, as well as Republican commander-in-chief Dwight D. Eisenhower, exposing their perfidy vis-à-vis Indochina, beginning with Truman’s spending of millions of US taxpayer dollars to defeat Ho Chi Minh and the anti-colonialist, nationalist, and communist liberation movement.

The Post opens in 1966 Vietnam, where, as Country Joe and the Fish memorably put it in their protest song, “Uncle Sam needs your help again. He’s got himself in a terrible jam. Way down yonder in Vietnam.” Civilian Daniel Ellsberg, who has been dispatched by the government to view the “jam” there firsthand, joins a detachment of American “big strong men” patrolling a Vietnamese jungle. There, the supposedly invincible soldiers are ambushed and soundly defeated by, presumably, Viet Cong guerrillas. As with most Hollywood films about the Vietnam War, a great rock song, this one by Creedence Clearwater Revival, accompanies Spielberg’s brief Indochina sequence that sets the stage for the unfolding drama.

On the flight back to the US, Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara (Bruce Greenwood, who, interestingly, played JFK in the 2000 Cuban Missile Crisis drama Thirteen Days) debates a hawkish politician over Vietnam policy. McNamara argues that the war is not going well and summons Ellsberg from the back of the plane to offer his expertise. However, upon landing back at Washington, a troubled Ellsberg observes McNamara addressing a throng of reporters, lying about US progress in what folk singer Pete Seeger called “The Big Muddy,” where “the big fool said to move on.”

In addition to Streep, the movie features Tom Hanks, who has collaborated with Spielberg on a number of projects including the World War II dramas Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, depicting the feisty, gravelly-voiced Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (also immortalized this year in an HBO documentary). Bradlee is sick and tired of being scooped by the New York Times and determined to turn his daily from a provincial paper into a first class national publication.

Despite the fact that publishing the Pentagon Papers endangers a public stock offering by the Post, Graham, after some hesitation, aligns herself with her editor to stand up to the newspaper’s business-oriented execs and the bullying Nixon administration. To do so both Graham and Bradlee must acknowledge their cozy relationship with D.C.’s power elite, and in a stand up and cheer scene, Kay Graham denounces to his face her longtime pal Robert McNamara.

The movie’s cast also includes The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright/actor Tracy Letts, David Cross, Sarah Paulson, Michael Stuhlbarg and Carrie Coon as WaPo’s Meg Greenfield, whose clash with the White House over coverage of Julie and Tricia Nixon’s weddings not only foreshadows the newspaper’s looming battle with the administration, but mirrors Kay Graham’s emergence as a female leader. The cast’s real standout is Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk (can you say “Best Supporting Actor Oscar”?) who breaks bad as the daily’s “other” Ben — Ben Bagdikian, who shrewdly tracks Ellsberg down and rather memorably quips: “I’ve always wanted to be part of a little rebellion.”

And who plays the inimitable Tricky Dick? Although an actor is glimpsed in long shot through Oval Office windows, it is Nixon’s own voice the audience hears attacking the journalists, as was later revealed by the Watergate tapes.

Matthew Rhys is well cast as the uber leaker Ellsberg. But Ellsberg, who remains a hero for the ages, gets short shrift. He has much less screen time than Bradlee or Graham, although without this whistleblower’s courage the Post and Times would not have had a story to tell. Indeed, Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger called Ellsberg “the most dangerous man in America.” (A documentary airing on MSNBC about Ellsberg may, to some extent, redress this imbalance.)

Instead, the script by Liz Hannah, remarkably, her first produced screenplay, and Josh Singer (in addition to the West Wing TV series, his credits include the journalism-oriented Spotlight and the Wikileaks picture The Fifth Estate) focuses on Kay’s coming of age as a woman on the world stage. In one scene, she strides down the outdoor steps of the Supreme Court, as throngs of women movingly cheer her on in victory.

The film is extremely of the moment as another tyrannical president seeks to undermine the free press as he and his administration are under investigation. Although WaPo, the Times and other news outlets have at times strayed from journalism’s path of afflicting the powerful and comforting the powerless, Steven Spielberg’s bravura The Post is a superbly rendered dramatization of one of American journalism’s finest moments. Spielberg may be Tinseltown’s entertainer par excellence, but he truly excels with more serious-minded films, starting with Schindler’s List and including Amistad, Munich, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies.

The Post brilliantly demonstrates how finely honed storytelling skills can be put at the service of profound causes, such as freedom of the press. Now that’s entertainment!

CBS producer Fred Friendly told Ed Rampell he was “the only journalist in America named after Edward R. Murrow,” the legendary broadcaster. The third edition of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book, co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer/film historian Rampell, drops in March 2018. This originally appeared at

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 15, 2018

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