The story of the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 is a quintessential journalism story. There are few better stories filmmakers could draw from to communicate to the public the importance of freedom of the press and the right to publish enshrined in the First Amendment. With Daniel Ellsberg at the center as the source for the newspapers, it is also a magnificent whistleblower story.
Yet, to anyone familiar with the Pentagon Papers story, “The Post” is not what one might expect. That is because the source material for the screenplay initially conceived by Liz Hannah was Post publisher Katharine Graham’s 1997 autobiography, “Personal History.”
As a result, even though the Supreme Court decision is New York Times Company v. United States, the conflicts within the Times offices around publishing the Pentagon Papers are not the focus.
Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) appears in an opening scene in Vietnam. Director Steven Spielberg and the screenwriters show Ellsberg removing the Pentagon Papers from the safe. A scene takes place in a hotel room, where Ellsberg was hiding from the FBI. Altogether, Ellsberg appears in only about an eighth of the film.
That does not mean the film is not compelling. With Graham (Meryl Streep) and the Post at the center, the filmmakers tell the story of the Pentagon Papers from the perspective of a media organization that was focused on how to turn profits and maintain access to the White House. They present a media organization that was run by a wealthy woman, who is compromised ethically because she socializes with the very people in power that her paper should hold accountable.
Graham is shown at a dinner party with former secretary of defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the very person who commissioned the Pentagon Papers study of the Vietnam War in 1967. He was hiding the truth about the war from the public and had moved on to run the World Bank in 1968. But until the Post obtained a copy of the Pentagon Papers, as the film shows, Graham never thought to confront McNamara.
Editor of the Post, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), is well-known as an investigative journalist who exposed much of the corruption of President Richard Nixon’s administration. However, in the film, Bradlee is initially seen dealing with the fact that the White House will not credential a Post reporter for Tricia Nixon’s wedding. He is concerned the Post will be one of the few prominent newspapers that does not cover the pomp and circumstance. When the Post does manage to put together a story, it runs the same day as the Times reporter Neil Sheehan’s first report on the Pentagon Papers.
In fact, Bradlee himself had a cozy relationship with President John F. Kennedy. There is a scene in the film, where Bradlee confesses that he made a choice whether to be Kennedy’s friend or a reporter who would investigate and hold him accountable. He chose to be a dear friend and that compromised his work.
Bradlee was, as James DiEugenio highlighted for Consortium News, someone who had relationships with “leading figures in the U.S. government and its intelligence community, including CIA rising star Richard Helms who [was] Bradlee’s friend since childhood.”
“In the 1950s, Bradlee not only worked as a U.S. government propagandist in France with close ties to Operation Mockingbird, the spy agency’s project for penetrating and influencing the U.S. news media, but he developed close personal ties to the CIA’s Cord Meyer, a senior clandestine services propagandist considered a leader of Operation Mockingbird,” according to DiEugenio.
Addressing senior CIA employees at the agency’s headquarters in November 1988, Graham remarked, “We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.”
Spielberg, Hannah, and Singer avoid confronting the full extent of Bradlee or Graham’s ties to powerful individuals within the national security apparatus who were responsible for countless abuses of power.
Nevertheless, it is quite embarrassing for the Post. Bradlee has no idea what story Sheehan could possibly be developing, yet he recognizes it has been months since Sheehan published a story. Bradlee and others know they are about to be scooped.
While the story is one about how critical it is for journalists to assert the right to publish, the Post reporters loathe the fact that the Times beat them to publishing details from this major study. They are motivated out of competition to dig into what U.S. officials did to cover up the reality of the Vietnam War.
What saves the Post is Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), who remembers Ellsberg from his brief stint at Rand researching news media. He hunts down Ellsberg and brings 4,000 pages back to the Post.
Former general counsel for the Times, James Goodale, was a part of a team constantly challenging the Nixon administration’s war on the press. Goodale knew they may face jeopardy in the courts for publishing classified information, but he stood up against legal analysis that did not factor in the First Amendment and asserted the Times had a right to publish.
The lawyers that appear in the film (Jesse Plemons, Zach Woods) do not come off as strong advocates of the First Amendment. They are terribly concerned Bradlee is going to publish information that will open the newspaper up to prosecution under the Espionage Act. Whether backing away from a fight with Nixon will set back press freedom does not factor into much of their legal advice.
In the film, Graham is initially fearful that bankers will no longer back the Post in its initial public offering on the market. Bradlee and others hide that they have a copy of documents from the Pentagon Papers.
Graham said in 1985 that she had an image as a “tough, sort of decisive, combative person,” who would take on fights. However, she was “very courageous only when forced into a corner, and all the battles we got in were ones in which you had very little choice or no choice.”
The film depicts Graham in a pivotal scene coming up with a business justification that will not assuage the concerns of investors, however, it will give the Post an excuse to publish. That is how the Post comes to publish, even as the Times is enjoined from further publication of stories on the Pentagon Papers.
One could see the publication of the Pentagon Papers as an exception to the rule, which put the Post on a footing to produce more aggressive reporting on the Nixon Administration (including stories that exposed the Watergate scandal). And for a period in the 1970s, it did publish important works of journalism until Ronald Reagan was elected president and the national security apparatus enjoyed a resurgence of power and credibility in Washington.
That does not mean the film does not appropriately celebrate the right to publish. It still is a grand journalism story. It still may inspire future whistleblowers to come forward because Ellsberg’s motives are lauded, not denigrated.
As one would expect, Spielberg’s treatment is aesthetically pleasing. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski finds creative ways to add motion to shots in order maintain tension in a dialogue-heavy film. Composer John Williams provides a score that should be defined as this is what it sounds like when the First Amendment triumphs over power. This is the sound of the truth winning.
There is a moment in the film, where Odenkirk walks in with a bag of newspapers. He lays down copies of several of the 17 other newspapers that published like the Post did. It not only is a show of solidarity in journalism but also a demonstration of how the way one exercises the right to publish is to publish.
Spielberg, Hannah, Singer, Hanks, Streep, and other clearly intended this film to challenge Trump and his contempt for the press, which has invited constant comparisons to Nixon since he assumed office. Whether they would have produced this film with a Democrat in the White House is worthy of discussion. Yet, it is secondary to the potential power of this film to inspire citizens to learn more about the Pentagon Papers.