Black and White and Red All Over
Backstory: Robert McNamara was an analyst. He became Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy administration, but he was, in the depths of his soul, an analyst. If he encountered a problem, he asked for a "study" so that he could look at it in black and white terms, and...maybe...somewhere in the details, he could see a solution, or at least a path to the solution. McNamara started his "Vietnam Study Task Force" in June of 1967, not telling President Lyndon Johnson or Secretary of State Dean Rusk about it. But, the task force wasn't instigated with the purpose of finding a solution, but, rather, to have it in writing what went wrong. The tacit implication of the findings that looked at U.S. policy from the Truman administration to the Johnson years was that the Vietnam War was not being won and might not be won—even while a public face of "steady as she goes" was proffered and more and more American soldiers were being drafted to go to that war and maybe die.
By the time the study was finished, a new administration was in office, that of Richard Nixon. When the McNamara study hit the desk of his Defense Secretary, Melvin Laird, it was largely ignored as a relic of a past administration. It probably wasn't even read.
But, it was of interest. Two copies were sent to the Rand Corporation, and it was from there that one of the contributors to the study, Daniel Ellsberg, who had worked for the U.S. State Department in Vietnam for two years, smuggled out a copy of the study, copied it and distributed it to The New York Times, specifically reporter Neil Sheehan. The study became known as "The Pentagon Papers" and, just as suddenly, "A Big Deal."
Today's story: Steven Spielberg took advantage of the long post-production period for his already-shot Ready Play One and a hole in his schedule after a casting fall-through in his planned film of The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortaro (screenplay by Tony Kushner) to rush through production of The Post, written by Liz Hannah, (her first feature screenplay and chosen to be on 2016's "Black List") and optioned by producer Amy Pascal in late 2016. Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks signed on and Hannah's script was given a once-over by Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate, Spotlight)—for explanations of what the "Papers" entailed and some background on Ellsberg. For their part, The Times, is grumbling about the billing ("it's a good movie, but bad history," says the Times' then-legal counsel James Goodale), missing the point that the movie might have something more on its mind than just the story of "The Pentagon Papers."
The first few minutes go through the back-story, starting with Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) going out on a patrol in South Vietnam and witnessing a fire-fight against Viet Cong snipers who are already in place waiting to fire on a U.S. patrol and nimbly changing positions to get a better position in the dense jungle foliage, and ends with Ellsberg glancing over his shoulder as Defense Secretary McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) puts a positive attitude on for the press, after he just saw the Secretary on the plane angrily say that "things are not getting better...that means things we're not making any progress." Later, at Rand, Ellsberg takes as many files as he can fit in his briefcase, takes them to a printer's and makes copies that then have the pages numbers cut off, along with the security seal that says "Top Secret - Sensitive."
It's a busy morning for Washington Post publisher Kay Graham (Streep): first she goes over the pending public offering of the Post with her Board Chairman Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), then, there's a scolding call from the White House's Bob Halderman griping about a Post reporter sneaking in to First Daughter Tricia Nixon's wedding, and then it's a quick breakfast meeting with Post Editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks), who spends his time waiting for Graham by reading the competing paper, The New York Times. The Tricia Nixon kerfluffle is gone over as well as the IPO, but Bradlee's more concerned about something that ISN'T going on—the Times' Sheehan hasn't published anything for three months. He's onto something, and he wants to know what.
An editorial meeting at the Post has Bradlee (after some polemic about White House wedding protocol**) pay an intern to find out what might be going on...by just walking into The Times' offices and seeing what he can see. Meanwhile, Graham pays a visit to the home of Robert McNamara and, after pleasantries, he warns her that the Times is going to print something bad about him tomorrow and could she...(you know). She expresses sympathy, but tells him she's not going to suppress news even though "he and Margaret" helped out so much when her husband (her predecessor as publisher) (you know) died, which she'll always be grateful for...
It's a nuanced conversation...about loyalties and favors, past kindnesses...but with an understanding about duties, as well, and the roles one is required to play with only the implications that it's understood, but not really saying it. These are not rat-a-tat conversations in the Sorkin variety, like everyone already knows what they're going to say because they were practicing last night; these are interactions that are messy and interrupting and urgent, and Streep is the master of saying things even when she doesn't complete a sentence and moves on. Watching her and Hanks (at that breakfast scene) push each other and Hanks act like he's got the final say and Streep turn her head like it's all over and hum a bit as if she's stifling a rebuke, but the energy of it can't help to rattle in her throat...oh, it's a master-class on acting. And that scene's only breakfast.
I read Peggy Noonan's book about speech-writing for the Reagan Administration and she had a particularly thorny relationship with ABC News' White House Correspondent Sam Donaldson, but she liked Donaldson and the two, who might have seen each other as combatants, were actually quite fond of each other—"Professionals don't bear grudges" was her explanation. In The Post, there is a camaraderie, both social and professional that makes things complicated: Bradlee was pals with the Kennedy's; Graham, with the Johnson's and McNamara, all would be tarnished with the same brush if "The Papers" are published and there is some soul-searching done about it. But, the result of all this is, she marches into Bradlee's office and tells him that McNamara is worried about something in tomorrow's Times.
One of Bradlee's reporters, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) thinks he may know what's going on, so he calls a colleague at the Times, asking about old times and, hey, remember that guy Ellsberg?—but the man's gone missing. Then, during a protest rally, a box of papers is dropped on a nearest reporter's desk. Things are starting to pop on the story and by the time the Post has got the papers, Nixon's White House** has come down with the unprecedented move of a cease and desist order...on a free press...and threats of espionage charges. While Bradlee tries to get the low-down on the pages dropped at their door-step, Bagdikian travels to Boston and finds Ellsberg and all of the papers.
And here's what makes The Post so special, and why "The Times" wouldn't be so interesting a film: Kay Graham doesn't know. But she knows the stakes: her family has owned the Post since...forever; her father gave the reins to her husband, while she tended to raising the kids and socializing; after the "accident" (it was a suicide, actually), she worked with her institutional family knowledge of publishing and got up to speed to become not just the de-facto publisher, but the "honest-to-God" publisher, and her IPO is to get funds to expand the reporter pool. That's high stakes. Throw in the threat of government interference and even jail-time, and we're looking at something that won't enhance the company, but probably kill it.
On top of that, Graham is uncomfortable with her position—she feels ill-prepared and ill-equipped to deal with the issues. If she didn't have her own doubts, seemingly every man in every room she walks into will be only to happy to tell her that. The Post just might be the first deliberate film (outside of the action genre, at least) to be spoken in the not-too-foreign language of "man-splaining", culminating in what might be Spielberg's tour de force sequence of the film—a multi-lined telephone call in which Streep's Graham is alone in a room (deliberately) while she is getting pressure from all sides to publish or not to publish...given all the stakes...given all the pressures. It's where Streep's performance, at times tremulous, at times aggressively (deflectingly) social, is such an essential co-conspirator in the text. Yes, it's about "The Pentagon Papers," and Freedom of the Press, and defending it from encroaching governmental influence (all topical, as it will always be in a messy democracy), but it is also about finding the weight of the feminine voice and acknowledging that weight against the basso profundo's (real or imagined) sparring with it in the room. It's about Katharine Graham becoming...not "Kay," but KATHARINE Graham. THE Katharine Graham. Owner and publisher of The Washington Post. Unquestionably.
And that's a different story. Hannah (and Spielberg) do a "rope-a-dope", selling the sizzle of "The Pentagon Papers" (and telling that story well), but their focus is on the story of a woman not only establishing her place, but going "all in", relishing it and finding her own comfort in it. Timely? Yeah...even more than the "Press" angle.
So, yes: important movie. But, as impressive as it is, marks have to be taken off for Spielberg sometimes using his directorial clout to bludgeon a point too far home. Towards the end, Graham makes a remark using her husband's phrase that reporting is the first draft of History and then making the point that it's a perpetual process and walks away, leaving Hanks to say "Yes, it is." It's "nice" that a man deigns to weigh in with his opinion, but they didn't need it. Unnecessary, really. Maybe it's a rebuke that a guy always has to have the last word, but it's ...irritating, especially with what has come before (And I love Streep's last line of the film—"Glad we don't have to THAT again"—it was ad-libbed). And one could make a joke about this being a prequel to All the President's Men—but, in that film, Katharine Graham isn't even portrayed.
So, very good, with some hesitations. But, there are lovely little Spielberg touches (besides the mechanics of that earlier mentioned phone-call). There is a great visual primer on the process of creating hot metal typesetting for printing that will make one immediately nostalgic for "the old days." And it is capped by a shot that will impress those of us who were never newspaper reporters of the old stripe, but will probably seem so commonplace that it might not be given its prominence. There's a shot of Bob Odenkirk at his typewriter as the massive presses of the newspaper start to roll and the entire room is filled with the muffled sound and the slight agitation of the power of the presses...and by extension, the Press itself.
|Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee leaving court after the decision in their favor.|
* That reporter, Judith Martin, would become the charming syndicated advice columnist "Miss Manners."
** Know what's eerie? Hearing the actual tapes of Nixon's phone conversations embedded in the narrative.
*** Nixon might not have known what was in those documents, but he was afraid of them. During the 1968 campaign, as he was running for President as a private citizen, he had surreptitiously used emissaries to contact the South Vietnamese government to delay peace talks until after the election...where they might get more favorable terms from him. Nixon sabotaged the Peace Talks to get elected (a move that when sitting Pres. Johnson heard about it, called it "treasonous"—but he said that about a lot of things), but that was too late in the game to be covered by the Pentagon Papers study. However, trying to find legally useful evidence of his actions might have been the reason for the Watergate break-in.