Most of Steven Spielberg’s directorial output falls into two broad categories. Big budget popcorn blockbusters like Back to the Future and Ready Player One in one group, and quasi-historical agitprop like Schindler’s List and Amistad in the other. While they both serve the same political goals, the films in the latter category are easier to dissect because they aren’t veiled in fantasy or sci-fi symbolism. Released a mere year into the Trump presidency, anyone who isn’t already on board with Spielberg’s politics can smell the agenda behind the film a mile away. Simultaneously a softball primer on the Post’s role in exposing the Pentagon Papers and a love letter to the movie’s namesake, The Post amply demonstrates Spielberg’s mastery of the medium. Though one gets the impression that Spielberg more or less phoned this film in, it is a surprisingly satisfying drama on its own terms. It is also a cunningly deceptive work of progressive propaganda. If we take the case that even when making historical dramas Spielberg is revealing occulted truths underneath the exoteric editorial, The Post reveals a lot about the true nature of the DC power structure.
The film traces the events that occurred between Daniel Ellsberg’s theft of the Pentagon Papers from the Rand Corporation archives up to the Post’s coverage of the report and subsequent Supreme Court exoneration. The drama of the film centers around the tensions that arise when a sedate establishment paper like the Post exercises editorial courage and actually lives up to its assumed mandate to hold the powerful accountable for their actions. As WaPo heiress, Kay Graham, Meryl Streep is the tentative-but-determined publisher and widower trying to negotiate a path forward for the paper. While trying to reconcile the competing aims and advice of Post chairman, Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), editor-in-chief, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and board member, Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), Streep is plying yet another tiresome spin on the Beleaguered Womyn Standing Up to The Patriarchy.
As the film opens, we are plunged into the war torn hellscape of South Vietnam in 1965 as it’s seen through the eyes of high level Pentagon bureaucrat and assistant to Secretary of Defense, Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg knows the war effort is a failure and all their attempts at technocratic administration have had no effect. Disaffected with the lies being spewed by Robert McNamara, Ellsberg returns to the employment of the Rand Corporation and uncovers reams of research performed by his employers that reveal just how much had been hidden from the public over several administrations.
In 1971, New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan ran the first article exposing the leaked papers and was subsequently throttled by the Nixon administration in court. Cowed by the iron fisted tactics of the White House, the leadership of the Post were at first reticent to pursue what was obviously an explosive story. Driven by a sense of journalistic duty, Post reporter, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), goes on a tireless search for Ellsberg in a world without internet connectivity or cell phones. After communicating through presumably untapped phone booths, the two meet in a secluded hotel room and Ellsberg hands him the 7000 page trove. As he flies back to DC, the stewardess innocently asks about the giant box occupying the adjoining seat. “Just government secrets”, he quips.
As a viewer, you already know how things will resolve, but Spielberg masterfully crafts the dramatic beats. It remains engrossing throughout. However, just like Bagdikian’s quip, Spielberg is also putting a lot in plain sight that goes beyond what he wants you to see. For one thing, he is very clever about how he frames the moral conflict. When Bradlee presses Graham about the importance of maintaining the integrity of their role as members of the fourth estate regardless of whose feathers might get ruffled, Graham initially balks because of her close social ties with McNamara. To his credit, Spielberg is revealing the longstanding symbiosis between the progressive political establishment and their media lapdogs. At a crucial juncture in the film, Bradlee openly acknowledges the Grahams’ proximity to the highest echelons of the Democratic power elite.
Ben Bradlee: [to Kay] You know, the only couple I knew that both Kennedy and LBJ wanted to socialize with was you and your husband.
It’s a refreshing moment of honesty, but this is also a cinematic parlor trick. Just as Lincoln portrayed the Democrats as the villains, Spielberg again wants you to see this film as a fundamentally apolitical work upholding timeless truths and sacred American ideals irrespective of his obvious partisanship. After all, this is simply a quasi-historical account of an event which was damaging to Democratic presidents. Spielberg wants to show you how pained and tortured Bradlee and Graham were in weighing the decision to release the information that would be damaging to people in their social circles who also happened to be on the same political team as they were. He really wants you to believe that the WaPo of 2018 and all other establishment media outlets are just these selfless, intrepid truth seekers who would fearlessly pursue the truth even if it was damaging to a Democratic regime. Spielberg really wants you to think that all of these pampered elites are going to put everything on the line and hold the political class to account even if it disrupts their cushy lives, their exclusive access and their career fortunes. Ergo, you should trust the media to be just as fearless about holding both parties accountable regardless of which party occupies the White House or controls Congress. Right.
The central deception of the film is that it tries to paint WaPo and establishment media as independent actors. Who really thinks that the Washington Post under Jeff Bezos is really a completely neutral paper without an unspoken ideological bias? Who really thinks that the millions donated to Democrats and the prospect of a fat Pentagon contract aren’t tilting the coverage in one direction? Who really takes Jennifer Rubin and George Will seriously as honest conservatives?
And what about the Rand Corporation? Ellsberg gets painted as a hero for stealing the report and leaking it to the media, but is anyone asking what they’re up to in the first place? If you read the official line, it’s just a cutting edge think tank which just happens to attract the brightest minds from the military, intelligence and academic communities who are applying themselves to the world’s thorniest issues. If you scratch just below the surface, you find a collection of shadow technocrats and neocons who are agitating for expanding surveillance, global military intervention, weather manipulation and various forms of social engineering. When anyone discusses the “deep state” or the “shadow government”, it includes quasi-private, para-intelligence organizations like Rand. Who’s to say that the release of the Pentagon Papers wasn’t quietly authorized by Rand as a large scale psychological operation in the first place?
What’s really galling about The Post is just how predictably tone deaf Spielberg is to the cultural moment. Like his imperious cohorts and their servile, feckless sycophants, Spielberg is painfully oblivious to the media landscape of 2018. Since Trump announced his candidacy for POTUS, there has been an incessant and increasingly unhinged howl of fauxtrage from the ruling elites that someone who hasn’t been properly anointed has claimed the reins of power. He hasn’t hidden the fact that this film was meant as another broadside against Trump, but who’s going to come away from this film with a changed mind? Progressives will congratulate themselves for watching another movie which confirms their biases and conservatives will either ignore it or vent over Hollywood’s liberal agenda.
What’s perhaps most odious about The Post is that Spielberg has the audacity to continue to present progressives as the champions of press freedom and civil liberties. The media and political landscape of The Post is ancient history. Like everyone in Hollywood establishment, Steven Spielberg seems to hold the belief that there are people outside his echo chamber who need a history lesson on the importance of a free press and the dangers of executive overreach. The stupid rubes just don’t get it. Pay attention, you MAGA hat wearing degenerates. Steven Spielberg wants all you stupid peasants to just ignore the absolute monopoly progressives hold in media, Hollywood, Silicon Valley and academia and get really worried about the despotic overreach of Donald Trump. Just ignore the aggressive and punitive clampdowns of the Obama administration. Pay no attention to the fact that during the era in which this was set, the entire liberal counterculture predicated their movement on free speech First Amendment rights, but now cheerleads the multibillion dollar tech giants who openly censor and deplatform any opinion to the right of Bernie Sanders. Just disregard the fact that WaPo Executive Editor, Marty Baron, openly admitted that Trump was more accessible than Obama at the recent Poynter Ethics Summit. Just close your mind off to these inconvenient facts and focus all your attention on that ominous final scene and pretend that Trump is just a carbon copy of Nixon. Just luxuriate in this romanticized portrait of a bygone era where liberal virtue was a metaphysical certitude. Kind of like the way Wade Watts donned his VR goggles as he entered the Oasis in Ready Player One.
The Post takes its place alongside All The President’s Men and Spotlight as a subgenre of films in which Hollywood consecrates its fellow media brethren as eternal champions of truth and guardians of the American republic. It’s not that these media victories were inconsequential or untrue, it’s just that the one-sided agenda they serve is so blatantly obvious at this point. Will Spielberg ever make a film chronicling the years the media spiked or ignored Hollywood’s abuses? Will the cinematic adaptation of the Harvey Weinstein media story ever get made? Will Spielberg ever make a film which paints the sexual revolution in a bad light? Where’s the media’s aggressive investigation of the allegations contained in An Open Secret? Oh, that’s right. None of these exist because this would be damaging to the progressive establishment.
On the positive side, The Post’s historical details are outstanding and a shocking reminder even to me of how distant the technological world of 1971 seems. Telephones were devices plugged into walls and had rotary dials which required a small amount of physical exertion to operate. Newspaper print had to be laid out in typesetting machines and then put into production with giant presses. After the paper is printed, the bundles are loaded on to trucks through human chains of men. Sure, it still goes on to this day, but for how much longer? Shortly after Graham authorizes the printing of the story, the film cuts to Bagdikian cracking a wry smile as the rumble of his desk signifies the impending arrival of a historic journalistic scoop. And when the paper arrives, the whole world stops to read it. Maybe there’s something to learn from the analog world after all.
The Post is an enjoyable enough 2 hours of viewing, but I doubt anyone will look back on it as one of Spielberg’s best films. The fact that this film was fast tracked into production so quickly after Trump entered the White House says quite a bit about how deeply he’s agitated the ruling elites. In the film, Parsons excoriates Graham for putting the future of the paper at risk by publishing stolen top secret government documents. His concern that everything was on the line rang true. I suggest that Parsons’ anxiety offers a window of insight into the panic that has gripped the progressive establishment. Not because he’s the tyrant they continuously portray him as, but because he’s not in their Club. Sure, he’s a billionaire and everyone loved him before he went into politics, but since he entered the arena, he joined the Wrong Team. Making things worse is that he’s openly adversarial and calling out WaPo and all the other media lackeys for being the water carrying propagandists they are. Anyone who isn’t inside the progressive bubble knows this. And we certainly don’t need a patronizing cinematic lecture from Steven Spielberg in order to understand the virtues of a free press.