Why Spielberg’s *The Post* bugged me (full of spoilers, but if you already know the history…)

by on January 4, 2018 at 2:37 am in Film, History, Law, Political Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

The movie centers around Daniel Ellsberg’s revelation of the Pentagon Papers and their publication in The New York Times and most of all The Washington Post, the center of the dramatic tension.  The courts rule for the newspapers (and ultimately Ellsberg) and Spielbergian triumphalism reigns.  Yet so many of those liberties have reverted to the state — had he stuck around, would Edward Snowden have received a public trial before a court of law?  You may believe Snowden is a different case (read Gladwell), but shouldn’t a public court be deciding that?  The feel-good tone of The Post also would not match a movie about a minor American military victory in the Vietnam of 1966, given what followed.  Does historical context matter so little?  Post-Obama, can newspapers protect their anonymous sources in matters of national security?

I usually don’t mind when movies play fast and loose with the truth, as is done in almost every biopic or history.  (They didn’t actually blow up that Death Star, they merely damaged it.)  But this case is different.  The whole theme of this film is about standing up for the truth even when commercial considerations dictate otherwise.  It then feels dishonest to give Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) a wildly overblown role, as this portrait does.  But it does make for a better story and presumably a higher-grossing movie.

For an artwork that pretends to defend freedom of the press, the underlying message is remarkably Trumpian in an almost Straussian manner.  The press collude, dine and party with leaders, and refuse to reveal their crimes and scandals, all to receive “access” and to be flattered.  Every now and then their need for reputation, and the desire for a broader national market, spurs them to “turn on” a president gone astray.  “The people” don’t have much of a say and fake news is everywhere.

The sadder commercial reality is that the first quarter to third of the movie is sophisticated and then it falls into good guys vs. bad guys.  It’s not smart enough to be Strauss.

It feels as if every actor or actress in the movie is a “grizzled veteran” of some kind or another.

The scenes of newspaper and print technology will go down as some of the finest cinema of our time.

1 Steve Sailer January 4, 2018 at 3:06 am

“The scenes of newspaper and print technology will go down as some of the finest cinema of our time.”

Spielberg is just plain good at filming stuff.

I liked the pneumatic tubes for sending articles from the newsroom to the printing presses, although I see that vacuum tubes aren’t as outmoded today as I thought — e.g., the newish Denver airport was constructed with a lot of pneumatic tubes.

2 Anon January 4, 2018 at 6:33 am

Pneumatic tubes are used extensively in modern hospitals to send medications from pharmacy to various floors.

3 So Much For Subtlety January 4, 2018 at 3:24 am

Every now and then their need for reputation, and the desire for a broader national market, spurs them to “turn on” a president gone astray.

Not on a President gone astray. On a Republican. And with Chelsea Manning and Snowden – there is a pattern. The press does not care about abuses by Democratic Presidents. Only Republicans.

Or more accurately I think Watergate was a dying gasp by America’s North-East, mainly WASP, elite. They did not like Nixon because he was so Lower Middle Class. Not like Kennedy at all. So they set out to remove him from office. The law and Constitution be damned.

Which is pretty much what is happening with Trump.

4 dan1111 January 4, 2018 at 6:49 am

“So they set out to remove him from office. The law and Constitution be damned.”

Well, it kind of helped that Nixon broke the law and abused the powers of his office big time. He wouldn’t have been gone without that.

5 y81 January 4, 2018 at 6:57 am

True, but Roosevelt and Johnson had done the same (ask, e.g., Moses Annenberg), and the establishment never turned on them. So it’s pretty clear that party affiliation is a big factor. (Given Johnson’s immunity, I’m not sure that class plays a role.)

6 clockwork_prior January 4, 2018 at 7:00 am

Clinton’s impeachment was clearly because he was a Republican just like Nixon, right?

7 dearieme January 4, 2018 at 7:25 am

The media’s overwhelming support for Slick Willie was because he was not a Republican.

8 clockwork_prior January 4, 2018 at 10:10 am

If you say so. The Washington Post made a big splash reporting on Whitewater in November 1993, less than a year after Clinton’s election, following reporting involving the Resolution Trust Corp. allegations. Here, for example – ‘A real estate firm that was half-owned by President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton is under scrutiny in two separate federal investigations that focus on the financial activities of prominent Arkansas business and political figures, according to federal officials and law enforcement sources.

The company, Whitewater Development Corp., has been a recurring source of controversy for the Clintons. The company was formed to develop vacation and retirement homes on the White River in a remote section of the Ozarks. The Clintons have said repeatedly that Whitewater was a debt-ridden, money-losing venture in which they were passive investors.’ https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1993/11/02/clintons-former-real-estate-firm-probed/451c7f22-a2c3-4fe2-9475-d91d83ef2bac/

Oddly, every single president since Nixon has complained about how the Post was treating them and/or their administration unfairly. The consistency of those complaints over decades is a shining beacon of bipartisan agreement in American presidential politics.

9 dearieme January 4, 2018 at 7:23 am

“Given Johnson’s immunity, I’m not sure that class plays a role.” Or perhaps class plays a role only for Republicans?

10 Art Deco January 4, 2018 at 11:56 am

Come again? Roosevelt’s minions burgled the offices of Smedley Butler’s doctor?

11 GoneWithTheWind January 4, 2018 at 10:02 am

Watergate was a conspiracy by Democrats to get Ted Kennedy elected to president. The news media was in a tough position in their part of the conspiracy because they had to make it appear that some huge crime happened in the Watergate breakin but at the same time make sure that the American public never found out what the Watergate breakin was about because it would highlight the Democrats breaking the law in a most disgusting manner. So the palace coup was carefully managed spurred on by a leaker in the FBI who was angry that he didn’t get a promotion and was thus motivated by revenge (sound familiar). Amazingly they pulled it off and folled most of the people into thinking that Nixon did some terrible anti-constitutional act. Couldn’t happen the same way today because the Internet would allow too much information that could not be controlled by the MSM.

12 aMichael January 4, 2018 at 10:30 am

Wait… What???? I need some sources on this one. My understanding is Nixon knew of the break in of the DNC offices and even ordered it, and then tried to cover that up. Sounds impeachable to me. And, yes, a scorned FBI leaker does sound familiar — I’m well aware of it and thought it ironic that Trump did something similar — but it doesn’t mean Nixon didn’t break the law!

13 clockwork_prior January 4, 2018 at 10:50 am

18 minutes of silence on a tape prove that Nixon was as innocent as a lamb.

Unless it was the dastardly Democrats that pushed the erase button, of course.

14 peri January 4, 2018 at 10:55 am

My impression – I was about two, mind, but was often playing on the floor near the TV set – is that it was the cover-up of the cover-up that sank Nixon, not the initial break-in, his knowledge of which has never been established?

15 Art Deco January 4, 2018 at 11:47 am

John Dean has stated that he didn’t think Nixon had any prior knowledge.

Formally, there was only one person intermediating between Gordon Liddy and Nixon, John Mitchell. Functionally, Nixon’s preferred procedures incorporated interacting with as few people face-to-face as he could manage and developing scripts which he followed in his meetings with many of those he did see. Henry Kissinger told Ron Nessen during the Ford Administration that Ford would bargain with foreign leaders while Nixon followed prepared scenarios. WoodStein contended that this practice extended to Nixon’s meetings with his own cabinet secretaries (to the irritation of White House aides who knew the meetings were pro forma and staged). Dean said he wasn’t sure as late as August of 1972 that the President knew who he was. They’d met 3x in two years.

Again, the fish rots from the head down. The hive like criminal conduct of a score of Nixon’s subordinates tells you something about the culture of that administration. We need exposes of the Administration which just departed office; of course, neither the press nor the academic history guild will write them.

16 Art Deco January 4, 2018 at 11:54 am

Nixon didn’t order the break in. He did set in motion a sequence of events which may have led to it. He dictated a memorandum in May 1971 saying it was time Lawrence O’Brien (then DNC chairman) was held accountable for his retainer from Howard Hughes. Others contend that John Dean persuaded Gordon Liddy to burgle the DNC offices to steal photographs embarrassing to Dean’s wife.

Again, by Liddy’s account and Dean’s, John Mitchell was content to have a pick-up team on the CRP payroll collecting dirt on the Democratic Party BAMN. He just thought Liddy’s initial plan was too expensive and rather lurid.

17 GoneWithTheWind January 4, 2018 at 12:10 pm

Nixon didn’t know about the breakin and was outraged at the stupiity of those who did it.
The breakin was initiated because one of the leaders of it had a girlfriend that worked for the DNC committee in the Watergate. She had told him that the DNC was bribing businessmen and foreign dignitaries with prostitutes and had a book of pictures of naked prostitutes for them to choose from. The breakin was intended to get the book and expose the Democrats bribing and extortion scam.

After it was exposed the Democrats plotted the impeachment in the hopes it would destroy the republicans chances of electing a Republican in 1976 and give Ted Kennedy a chance at the presidency. That was the plan but of course it never happened that way because Ted the lady killer had too much baggage to win a national election and only retained his senate seat from Massachusetts because his daddy owned the corrupt Mass Democrat party..

18 Ricardo January 4, 2018 at 12:48 pm

Mark Felt did not force Nixon to offer hush money to the Watergate burglars after the fact.

19 Art Deco January 4, 2018 at 11:30 am

Or more accurately I think Watergate was a dying gasp by America’s North-East, mainly WASP, elite. They did not like Nixon because he was so Lower Middle Class. Not like Kennedy at all.

Mr. Nixon gave them plenty of material to work with and now and again hired people who had no business exercising discretion in any setting. (The young Charles Colson, John Ehrlichman, John Dean, Tom Charles Houston). The fish rots from the head down.

What actually is distressing would be the abuses Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton and Obama got away with.

20 Anon7 January 4, 2018 at 3:39 am

“did Chelsea [sic] Manning receive a public trial before a court of law?”

Bradley Manning was subject to a general court martial, not a civilian public trial, as was appropriate given that his lawless actions were committed while serving in the military. Reporters (who were accused by some of not devoting sufficient attention to the case) managed to gather the bulk of what was presented. I see little justification that the public has the right to know about every last detail in such cases.

21 Thomas Sewell January 4, 2018 at 3:44 am

While I agree with your general sentiments, Snowden hasn’t had a trial because he fled the country, so I’m not sure he is the best example.

22 clockwork_prior January 4, 2018 at 3:55 am

He is still a better example than Manning – see below.

23 Mulp January 4, 2018 at 3:58 pm

“Yet so many of those liberties have reverted to the state — had he stuck around, would Edward Snowden have received a public trial before a court of law?”

All “terrorists” captured overseas once Obama took office were tried in Federal courts, and convicted. Not one person rendered to Gitmo was ever tried for anything, and Congress prohibited Obama bringing them to the US for trial in Federal court.

So, Snowden would have been tried in Federal court, even if extradited to the US.

As for Snowden revealing things equivalent to the Pentagon papers, well, that’s only to those with blinders on. The debates over extending the patriot act made pretty clear what the Bush administration had done along with statements by librarians, telcos, etc. The laws written and passed by Congress were blank checks, starting with the declaration of endless global war on scary people who probably cheered 911. Read that law and it declares war on individuals anywhere who supported 911 in any fashion, even as an idea.

24 clockwork_prior January 4, 2018 at 3:55 am

Manning was a member of the military, and different rules have always applied to military members. A clue just might be found when reading about the Uniform Code of Military Justice – http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/ucmj.htm The wikipedia article is not bad either, considering that the military has had its own legal framework since before the founding of the United States – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uniform_Code_of_Military_Justice

But to answer the specific question ‘did Chelsea Manning receive a public trial before a court of law,’ the answer is yes he did, according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. ‘United States v. Manning was the court-martial of former United States Army Private First Class Bradley E. Manning (known after the trial as Chelsea Manning).

After serving in Iraq since October 2009, Manning was arrested in May 2010 after Adrian Lamo, a computer hacker in the United States, indirectly informed the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command that Manning had acknowledged passing classified material to the whistleblower website, WikiLeaks. Manning was ultimately charged with 22 specified offenses, including communicating national defense information to an unauthorized source, and the most serious of the charges, aiding the enemy. Other charges included violations of the Espionage Act, stealing U.S. government property, charges under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and charges related to the failure to obey lawful general orders under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Manning entered guilty pleas to 10 of 22 specified offenses in February 2013.

The trial on the 12 remaining charges began on June 3, 2013. It went to the judge on July 26, 2013, and findings were rendered on July 30. Manning was acquitted of the most serious charge, that of aiding the enemy, for giving secrets to WikiLeaks. In addition to five [8][9][10] or six[11][12][13] espionage counts, Manning was also found guilty of five theft specifications, two computer fraud specifications and multiple military infractions.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_v._Manning

Stick with Snowden when attempting to make such points. Manning’s arrest and imprisonment demonstrates the American legal system working in the fashion provided for by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Or to be vaguely cynical – don’t fall for the leftist clap trap about Manning being subjected to cruel injustice that discredits the entire American system, or how ‘liberties have reverted to the state’ when talking about members of the American military.

25 So Much For Subtlety January 4, 2018 at 4:41 am

“he”? Haven’t you just committed a hate crime? Illegal in California? What is worse is it illegal in Germany and will Tyler be arrested the next time he passes through Heathrow and forced to pay $44 million in fines?

26 clockwork_prior January 4, 2018 at 4:57 am

‘Haven’t you just committed a hate crime?’

Nope – the 1st Amendment still applies to all American citizens.

‘Illegal in California?’

Not until California secedes, at a minimum, as the 1st Amendment applies equally in all states of the United States.

‘What is worse is it illegal in Germany’

Nope, and in Germany, using German, I also have the liberty to use three ‘genders’ – er/he, sie/she, and es/it. Along with the distinction between formal and informal (if I were to use ‘sie’ for a woman I did not know, compared to ‘Sie,’ that could be considered insulting, though in no sense illegal). Admittedly, Germans seem a lot less concerned about these gender issues in general, almost as if they consider the entire subject fairly unimportant. Of course, considering that public saunas have mixed-sex dressing rooms, it isn’t as if Germans care about men and women being naked together anyways, or worry about which pronoun to use when talking to a naked person. And German kindergartens of my personal experience don’t have a distinction between girl/boy toilets either.

‘and will Tyler be arrested the next time he passes through Heathrow and forced to pay $44 million in fines’


27 clockwork_prior January 4, 2018 at 6:09 am

Oops – du/Sie is the split, though the distinctions between sie/sie/Sie/Sie (she/informal they/formal you/formal plural you) is always amusing, and fairly easy to screw up if one is not accustomed to making a formal/informal distinction in speech/writing (in my opinion, one of the absolute worst features of basically all European languages outside of English). This confusion is also a problem for German speakers when dealing with gender in English.

As noted here – ‘The verbs following the formal form of “you”—”Sie”—are conjugated identically as in the third-person plurals. For example, “Sie sprechen Deutsch.” This means either “You speak German” or “They speak German”, and it is completely up to the context to determine which one it is. “Sie spricht Deutsch.” is third person female, this is shown by the change of “en” to “t” in the action (i.e., “sprechen” vs. “spricht”), not context.

“Wann ist dein Geburtstag?” – “Er ist morgen.” (When is your birthday? – It is tomorrow. Overliterally: He is tomorrow.)

“Ich rufe den Hund” – “Ich rufe ihn.” (I am calling the dog – I am calling it. Overliterally: I am calling him.)

This is an example of gender-based pronoun usage that may not be intuitive to an English speaker, because in English the pronoun “it” is always used for an object. In German, objects always have a relevant gender to consider. In the above examples, both birthday and dog are masculine, so “it” becomes “er” in the nominative case and “ihn” in accusative.


28 rayward January 4, 2018 at 6:12 am

I don’t doubt that Ms. Graham’s role is exaggerated, but Cowen’s view (and criticism) of the film is out of context: Cowen is assessing the film from today’s perspective of news rather than in the 1960s. Today news is more free-wheeling, with many independent actors gathering and reporting news in real-time from many different outlets, while in the 1960s news developed and was reported much more slowly and from only a few outlets (such as the NYT and WP) which had a much more paternalistic (I think that’s an appropriate term for it) attitude about its role in informing the public. And lest one forget, national security today is viewed in the context of 9/11 and the horrific attack on the homeland, whereas in the 1960s it was still viewed in the context of the communist conspiracy, here and abroad, that had to be constantly reaffirmed no matter how unlikely. Indeed, the communist threat wasn’t just a bunch of religious zealots with primitive weapons but nation states with enormous armies and nuclear weapons: we weren’t just fighting a ragtag army of Vietnamese in the jungle but an existential threat from the Soviet Union and China. And lest one forget, the Bush administration did not know how to respond to the threat from religious zealots and quickly shifted the threat to one from nation states (the so-called axis of evil, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea) who, we were repeatedly told, possessed weapons of mass destruction. It worked then (thus, the invasion of Iraq) and continues to work today (a majority of Americans believe either Iraq or Iran was behind the 9/11 attack). The WP can report the news today in real time but, like the tree that falls in the forest, nobody hears it.

29 Alan Goldhammer January 4, 2018 at 8:12 am

I have to agree with rayward’s comment. It was a much different time back in the 1960s for those of us who came of age and were worried about getting drafted and sent off to fight a war we didn’t believe in. Over the past couple of months I reread Frances FitzGerald’s “Fire in the Lake” and Neil Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie” and it was not evident to most of us ‘at the time’ how we were being lied to. Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were all complicit in that regard.

I enjoyed the movie and from all the secondary sources I have read over the years, found it to be quite accurate. Perhaps Tyler was disappointed that there were no ETs around for comic relief.

30 Art Deco January 4, 2018 at 11:32 am

“Lied to” about what?

31 clockwork_prior January 4, 2018 at 12:38 pm

You have heard of the Pentagon Papers, right?

32 Ted Craig January 4, 2018 at 6:25 am

Spielberg stacks the deck by casting Tom Hanks as Bradlee. Alec Baldwin would have been a more accurate choice . Also, a more interesting story is the WA SPY, patrician Post vs.the Jewish, working-class Times.

33 Art Deco January 4, 2018 at 11:36 am

The Sulzbergers aren’t working class (I think A.O. Sulzberger was at least 3d generation rich). The Grahams were wealthy, influential, and had all kinds of entree, but Boston Brahmins they were not. A jumble of Jewish, Midwestern German, and small-town Midwestern old-stock American.

34 Ted Craig January 4, 2018 at 12:48 pm

I’m not talking about the Sulzbergers. I’m talking about Abe Rosenthal, Arthur Gelb and the numerous staffers at the time who graduated from City College.

35 Karl January 4, 2018 at 7:29 am

“The whole theme of this film is about standing up for the truth even when commercial considerations dictate otherwise.”

How do you know?

36 Jeff R January 4, 2018 at 9:07 am

The sadder commercial reality is that the first quarter to third of the movie is sophisticated and then it falls into good guys vs. bad guys.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’ve heard this criticism echoed elsewhere. Wouldn’t surprise me. Hollywood doesn’t make sophisticated movies anymore, and Spielberg never reeeaally did in the first place.

37 rklllama January 4, 2018 at 9:28 am

There’s a common misconception that the Death Star in Return of the Jedi is the same Death Star from the original Star Wars and that the Death Star was merely damaged. This just isn’t true. The Death Star in Star Wars was completely destroyed. The second Death Star in Return of the Jedi is an entirely new battlestation.

38 subdee January 4, 2018 at 3:23 pm

I think the point is that this is true in the Rebellion’s recruitment propaganda materials, but not in “realty”.

39 Hazel Meade January 4, 2018 at 9:41 am

Anyone else seen Darron Aronofsky’s ‘Mother!’ yet?

40 The Anti-Gnostic January 4, 2018 at 9:55 am

Peak Boomer.

41 Careless January 4, 2018 at 1:15 pm

Well past that by now, thankfully. Unleash Gen X!

42 Peter Metrinko January 4, 2018 at 10:00 am

As to your comment about the media playing footsie with the government, I highly recommend Jim Risen’s accounting of his attempts to publish stories about US surveillance of its own citizens: https://theintercept.com/2018/01/03/my-life-as-a-new-york-times-reporter-in-the-shadow-of-the-war-on-terror/

43 D Newcomer January 4, 2018 at 8:21 pm

Strongly Agree. Very much worth the time to read and quite illustrative of the corruption that power and maintenance of status engender.

44 albigensian January 4, 2018 at 10:47 am

Then again, movies are and remain show business. The business of show business is entertainment, not teaching. And it’s been a long time since a so-called “documentary” was anything other than a simple advocacy piece.

Movies are for fun. Why would you ever consider watching one to learn something??

45 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 4, 2018 at 10:58 am

Fine. Then let’s talk about today. What is really going on with the Time-Warner merger?

Isn’t it a really odd time for champions of large private companies, up to and including “monopolies are long-term harmless,” to go radio silent?

Mood affiliation?

46 TMC January 4, 2018 at 12:15 pm

“The press collude, dine and party with leaders, and refuse to reveal their crimes and scandals, all to receive “access” and to be flattered.”

Is “Trumpian in an almost Straussian manner.” mean Obamian, as the quote above suggests?

47 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 4, 2018 at 12:54 pm

Nope. It turns out that truth is not symmetrical. You can say “Obama was thoughtful” and “Trump is a nitwit” and be perfectly correct.

Not deranged. Not deceived. Not deceiving.

Simply, correct.

48 Art Deco January 4, 2018 at 1:07 pm

Simply, correct.

His bibliography of scholarly publication during the 12 years he drew a salary from the University of Chicago is summarized below:

There were things he wasn’t thinking about.

49 Ali Choudhury January 6, 2018 at 5:24 am

What’s strange about that? He was teaching there only while doing part time work for a law firm and being a state senator. Doing legal research or scholarship would only have been necessary if he wanted tongonfor tenure which he didn’t.

50 TMC January 4, 2018 at 3:19 pm

So you don’t know either. Check.

51 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 4, 2018 at 1:00 pm

To be honest the use of “Trumpian” here is confusing. Does it speak to the higher ideal of campaign Trump? Drain the swamp? MAGA? Down with elites? Or does it refer to the circus of President Trump? High fives for the billioniaire tax cuts at a Trump Resort Winter Whitehouse Christmas Party (TM)? The poor little proles who now say “my taxes are going up, but I’m happy, MAGA!”

Does it refer to the contradiction between the two, in the middle of the room?

52 Jim Birch January 4, 2018 at 7:48 pm

Don’t all Spielberg movies degenerate into good guys v bad guys?

Sad. The guy obviously has talent….

53 D Newcomer January 4, 2018 at 8:24 pm

He has a wonderful talent for telling us stories we want to believe, too bad this can be so misleading and hence destructive.

54 zeus extreme funciona January 6, 2018 at 7:11 am

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