It was a bit puzzling when Deadline reported in March that Steven Spielberg was making a film about the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers. After all, the New York Times was the newspaper that first obtained the 7,000-page top-secret study of the Vietnam War and excerpted huge swaths of its shocking revelations. The Post picked up the ball after President Richard Nixon won a court order to block the Times from printing any further installments, but in the scheme of things, this was a sidebar to the main story.
As it turns out, though, Spielberg was onto something. The Post (which opens in a limited release on Dec. 22 before a wider release Jan. 12) is not only a terrific movie but as relevant a work of art or entertainment as anyone could hope for this Oscar season. Though based on events that took place 46 years ago, it’s a celebration of civic virtues in need of touting now—a free and feisty press, an independent judiciary, and a woman who finds her voice and purpose in a world ruled by men.
While watching it at a press screening in late November, I thought Spielberg had hit upon an accident of good timing since he must have signed onto the project before last year’s election. But as the Wall Street Journal reported recently, he read the screenplay (by Liz Hannah, a 31-year-old unknown who’d submitted it on spec) just this past spring, hired Josh Singer (who’d written Spotlight) to do a rewrite, started filming on Memorial Day, and finished editing it just a few weeks ago. He pushed the project at such a fast clip, setting aside another movie that he’d been making, precisely because he recognized that the story held such timely, urgent themes. In short, for his 30th feature film, Hollywood’s most successful commercial filmmaker has crafted a zesty piece of agitprop—a call to resistance in the era of Donald Trump.
The tale of the Pentagon Papers teems with so much drama that it’s surprising no major filmmaker has tapped into it till now. (A 2009 documentary about Ellsberg, The Most Dangerous Man in America, is quite good. A 2003 TV movie, starring James Spader as Ellsberg, is almost beneath consideration.) And there are so many possible angles: the story of Ellsberg himself, the disillusioned defense analyst who photocopied and leaked the papers, which revealed the ignorance and lies that led America to enter and escalate the war; the story of the newspapers that published the leak, in defiance of White House pressure; and the ensuing court battles, leading up to the triumph of the First Amendment and the transformation of American journalism.
Remarkably, The Post manages to trace all of these angles and to plunge deeply into several. More than that, it gets the big picture right and a lot of the details, too.
It is true, for instance, that, in 1971, as the story begins, the Washington Post was a provincial paper, staffed with talented reporters and led by a cauldron of ambition and charisma—the executive editor, Ben Bradlee—who was obsessed with raising the paper’s national profile to compete with the New York Times. When Nixon’s restraining order blocked the Times from pursuing its blockbuster scoop, Bradlee saw it as an opportunity, maybe the last one, for the Post—for him—to step into the big leagues.
It’s also true that, when Ellsberg leaked another copy of the documents to one of Bradlee’s reporters, the Post’s lawyers and financial advisers urged the publisher, Katharine Graham, not to print them, warning her that investors could pull out their money—the paper’s company had just gone public—and that Nixon’s Justice Department could throw her and Bradlee in prison.
The original screenplay was based mainly on Graham’s 1997 memoir, Personal History, and focused on her own transformation. A wealthy socialite, she had inherited the paper in the early ’60s, after her husband killed himself, but she was never taken seriously—and, as a result, rarely took herself seriously. The conflicting pressures of the Pentagon Papers forced her to take the reins and step up to her responsibilities, and she emerged as a towering figure in American publishing and a role model for professional women.
Spielberg widened the film’s focus to encompass the story’s other angles—Ellsberg’s evolution, the Washington elite’s lies about the war, and the tick-tock of daily-deadline journalism—but the rise of Mrs. Graham, in an era when the word Ms. hadn’t yet been popularized and the concept of gender equality wasn’t paid so much as lip service, remains a central theme.
With Meryl Streep in the role, it could hardly have been otherwise. It’s a cliché to say this, but Meryl Streep is Katharine Graham. There’s a scene—true to life—where she’s called away from a backyard party to talk on the phone with Bradlee and her corporate advisers. She has to decide then and there whether to publish, and as the camera moves in slowly, her face goes through a series of subtle contortions, reflecting a lifetime of anxiety, ambivalence, neglect, and pent-up rebellion, and finally she says, in a rush, as if disgorging it all, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s publish.” It’s a fabulous moment of release—everyone in the theater where I saw the film laughed giddily—and it’s one of the most wondrous half-minutes of acting on screen.
I wouldn’t have thought Tom Hanks had it in him to play Ben Bradlee, but he pulls off the right mix of gruff brio, restless drive, and romance for high principle, though he misses the Brahmin charm that Jason Robards caught so naturally in All the President’s Men. (For a fuller picture of Bradlee, who died in 2014 at the age of 93, watch the HBO documentary about him, The Newspaperman, with much of the voice-over supplied by Bradlee’s audiobook narration of his 1995 memoir, A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures, which is itself a fun, bawdy read.)
The film does take some liberties with the story. The opening scenes, which portray Ellsberg’s flip from Cold Warrior to anti-war leaker, compress the timeline to the point of distortion. We see Ellsberg (a spot-on Matthew Rhys) hear Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara say in a private conversation that the war is going badly, then minutes later tell reporters that the war is going splendidly. The film then cuts to Ellsberg pulling the Pentagon Papers out of a safe, reading a few pages, and taking it to a Xerox machine.
Each of those events really happened, but McNamara told this particular lie in 1966, the Pentagon Papers (which he commissioned as a study for future scholars to learn the war’s lessons) weren’t finished until early 1969, and Ellsberg didn’t copy them until a few months after then. And what motivated his action (which got him indicted on charges of conspiracy, espionage, and theft of government documents) wasn’t McNamara’s lie—Ellsberg had witnessed McNamara lie time and again since the phony Tonkin Gulf crisis of 1964—but rather the realization that Nixon, who’d just taken office, wasn’t going to stop the war but rather step up the bombing and the killing. Still, the lies did harden Ellsberg’s resolve—he believed that revealing the truth might end the war—so I see Spielberg’s condensation as acceptable dramatic license.
Toward the end of the film, after the U.S. Supreme Court lifts Nixon’s restraining order in a 6–3 ruling, allowing the Post and the Times to resume publishing the secret documents, we see Katharine Graham step out of the courthouse, surrounded by cheering crowds, including many young women, who gaze at her in adoration for the example she’s carved for their future. In reality, photos of the real Bradlee and Graham, smiling on the courthouse steps after the ruling, show no crowds whatever. And if there had been a crowd, they wouldn’t have been recognized; not until one year later, with the Post’s Watergate scoops (and, still more, with the 1976 movie based on that grander adventure in newspapering), did the two become household names and familiar faces. This distortion might be waved away as dramatic license, except that it wrests the movie out of its era (a rare lapse) and, worse, sentimentalizes its themes (a case of Spielberg reverting to his worst tendencies).
But the film is absolutely right in tagging this story as a pivot in American politics. Nixon had used his power to shut down the free press—he did what Trump sometimes only threatens to do—and the Supreme Court overruled his power in a decision that no one has since tried to challenge. The Pentagon Papers also marked the first time that the phrase national security was revealed, to a mass public, as an often-hollow cover for government lies and embarrassments.
Finally, the success strengthened the Post as a commercial and journalistic venture and emboldened Bradlee and Graham, who from this point became true partners in the newsroom. If they hadn’t found their footing and courage in the Pentagon Papers case, they might not have dug in and pushed full bore in uncovering the Watergate crimes (a connection that the film hints at in a clever coda, but I’ll hold the spoiler).
Despite its few flaws, The Post is an enthralling film: brisk, funny, suspenseful, inspiring. And to a former newspaper reporter, like myself, who came up in the wake of the events it depicts, it’s also a nostalgic tearjerker.
Check out Slow Burn: A Podcast About Watergate—a new Slate miniseries.