By Mark Bennett
The sizable line of ticket buyers inside the local multiplex theater pleasantly surprised me.
Could it be that all those people also were anxious to catch “The Post,” a new movie based on a pivotal moment in journalistic history?
Once inside theater No. 9, reality sank in. Most of the folks waiting in line came to see “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paddington 2,” “The Greatest Showman” or “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
By contrast, an audience of a dozen or so sat down to watch “The Post.” They responded positively to Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the Washington Post’s decision to publish the top-secret Pentagon Papers in 1971, defying the Nixon administration — not quite the box office appeal of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or Luke Skywalker.
I get that. I’ll pick a “Seinfeld” rerun over “Masterpiece Theater” any day. Still, “The Post” tells a 47-year-old story about the importance of a tenet of democracy, a free press, that is timely today. And it captures the gritty, hectic atmosphere of 20th-century city newspapers so well I could smell the press room ink and newsroom cigarette smoke.
The film sustains suspense through its hour and 55-minute run. Meryl Streep gives a compelling portrayal of Post publisher Katherine Graham’s transformation from an overwhelmed widow into an active guardian of her newspaper’s independence. Tom Hanks looks, moves and barks like Ben Bradlee, the Post’s aggressive executive editor.
The supporting cast intensifies the drama surrounding Graham and Bradlee, especially Bob Odenkirk (of “Better Call Saul” fame), who plays Bradlee’s assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian. It was Bagdikian who procured the Pentagon Papers, a study of the Vietnam War by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg concluding that U.S. presidents of both parties lied about America’s progress in the war and the chances of a U.S. victory.
The obvious subtext of the film is its parallels to 2018. A president rages against the press, casting journalists as enemies of the administration and the nation for reporting the bad, along with the good.
Importantly, “The Post” allows the flaws and mistakes of any human institution — in this case, America’s free press — to show. In the face of threats by President Nixon’s team to charge Bradlee, Graham and The New York Times (the newspaper that first published the Pentagon Papers until being stopped by a federal court order), Bradlee and Graham shared a moment of reckoning. Both acknowledged personal relationships with past presidents had likely allowed the powerful politicians to manipulate them. Those days, they agreed, had to end.
The film’s beautifully dated scenery of 1971 illuminates the paradox that an abuse of power, present when boat-sized Ford LTDs and Chrysler Imperials filled the streets, must also face a “check” by an independent press in today’s era of SUVs and Ford F-150s.
A Post editor rolls up the hard copy story on the government’s secret war study and dispatches it to the composing room through a pneumatic tube. Bagdikian nervously pumps coins into a pay phone to call his source, Ellsberg.
The slow spin of the rotary phone builds the drama, as Bagdikian clearly feels the weight of a possible incarceration for obtaining the documents.
Graham wrestles with her first crisis decision as publisher, as Bradlee and his newsroom staff push to report the story to Americans whose sons and daughters were serving the country in Vietnam.
Graham rendered her decision on a phone call, with Bradlee and Post board members, who were dismissive of Graham, and lawyers listening in. (Spoiler alert) Her words, “Let’s go. Let’s publish,” start the presses, infuriate the White House and reaffirm the First Amendment.
“The Post” is two hours well spent. It’s worth watching, even if that happens months from now via Netflix or a pay-per-view TV channel.
But after that night’s “Seinfeld” episode, of course.
Mark Bennett is a columnist for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. Send comments to [email protected].