Spielberg’s ‘The Post’ Salutes Journalism of a Bygone Era

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep revel in the past glory of the news business.

December 20, 2017 5:00 am
The Post
L-R: David Cross, Tracy Letts, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Bradley Whitford, Philip Casnoff, Brent Langdon, Carrie Coon (seated) in 'The Post.' (Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise.)

Stop the presses, there’s an Oscar-caliber movie that properly depicts the noble potential of journalism. Unfortunately, The Post feels very much like the period drama it is — a throwback to the days of sideburns and lead type slugs — and not the exclamation point director Steven Spielberg intended.

The liberal-leaning filmmaker clearly meant the drama about The Washington Post’s struggles to publish the classified Pentagon Papers in 1971 to resonate with the current plight of the press during an administration that doesn’t respect its function in a democracy. That Spielberg managed to get The Post, off a spec script by a relative unknown (Liz Hannah) no less, into theaters less than seven months after the first day of principal photography shows the deadline pressure he felt.

Meryl Streep stars as Kay Graham in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE POST. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise.
Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

And not to bury the lede: It’s a damn fine movie he put together with fellow Academy Award veterans Meryl Streep, as publisher Katharine Graham, and Tom Hanks, as legendary executive editor Ben Bradlee who would soon preside over the paper’s Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Watergate scandal. Go ahead and print this critic’s prediction that Streep will earn her fourth Oscar on March 4. Graham, an icon at a time when men dominated the news business, deserves the close-up.

Hanks and Streep, along with a stellar supporting cast that includes Bob Odenkirk and Carrie Coon, have been handed a meaty subject for dramatization. The film chronicles the tense backroom decision-making behind the Washington Post‘s decision to defy President Nixon and publish parts of a classified report that showed a government coverup under four U.S. presidents that the U.S. could not win the war in Vietnam.

The dialogue certainly could have come out of The Washington Post newsroom this afternoon. “We can’t let the administration dictate our coverage just because they don’t like what we print in our newspaper,” says Hanks’s Bradlee in one of the film’s many sermons.

But so much has changed for the profession since Graham’s brave decision helped alter the public perception of the Vietnam War — which makes watching The Post painful for a journalist who spent twenty years in the newsroom at the New York Daily News.

Tom Hanks stars as Ben Bradlee in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE POST. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise.

At the time The Post and The Times fought all the way to the Supreme Court for the right to publish The Pentagon Papers, most Americans relied on newspapers and a handful of trusted news anchors. When Walter Cronkite spoke, it resonated through American living rooms; The Times really was the paper of record.

The Post hits theaters in a very different era with different ways of consuming information because we now live in an age where we can pick and choose our sources for news. Conservatives tune in to Fox News, while liberals often opt for MSNBC, and ideological biases just tend to be reinforced. Moreover, political figures can now take their own spin directly to the masses via Twitter and label a report “Fake News.”

When a traditional news outlet like The Washington Post publishes a political bombshell report, it no longer the same universal weight that it once did.

In July, for example, The New York Times, published an exclusive that Donald Trump Jr. met with a Kremlin-connected lawyer during the 2016 presidential campaign to fish for dirt on his father’s rival, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Liberals embraced the revelation as proof of collusion; right wingers embraced the report as proof that of a witch hunt against the president. More recently, The Post‘s coverage of women who accused then Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore of pursuing them as teenagers when he was in his 30s was immediately dismissed by many conservatives as a hoax.  It’s as if readers are seeing the black and white ink of newspaper articles like a Rorschach test.

Much of that distrust is self-inflicted: To compete in an overcrowded market, where traffic is measured in real time, news organizations often rush to be first. Which can mean, as in the case of ABC News’s recent Brian Ross erroneous report on Michael Flynn, they sometimes move too fast and loose. Budget cuts mean fewer seasoned reporters and copy editors because the gossip sections that bring in the clicks can’t be touched.

Journalism in the time The Post hits theaters is markedly different than it was when those landmark headlines hit the real newspaper. And that’s the real kicker.

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