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.