The Post Review: The Anvil Breaks The Hammer

The Post 20th Century Fox

On April 6, 1971, Archer Blood sent back to Washington, from the belly of The Bangladesh Liberation War: “Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens, while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the West Pakistan dominated government. Our government has evidenced what many consider to be moral bankruptcy.”

These words were a modest but integral excerpt from the Blood Telegram, and portray so acutely the spirit and urgency that defined American journalism. This spirit promptly cemented a fierce and loyal camaraderie between the press and their first amendment rights, forged in defiance of the executive branch of the US government.

Spielberg’s latest epic, The Post, boasts a passionate understanding of American Journalism defined by an infamously uneasy war, but the film ultimately undermines its own relevance by revelling too clumsily in sentimentality. It’s a fine picture. Hanks and Streep are as good as you’d expect them to be, but barring a few slick turns of phrase and a handful of inspired visual moments, my suggestion that you see The Post owes much of itself to the misfortune of the time of which it was released.

Hubris, the ghost of the Kennedy administration and as Nixon himself charitably characterized it: “pure political containment,” claimed the lives of 58,220 American soldiers in the Vietnam War. The Post’s message regarding the importance of a free press, especially in the face of a would-be warlord, is handled about as well as The Teapot Dome Scandal, but it’s worth imbibing nonetheless. I’m not miffed by the film’s mediocrity nor am I annoyed by the handsome bevy of accolades it has managed to procure from the media. I am, however, disappointed by the film’s decision to handle such salient themes so slovenly. The score doesn’t trust you to comprehend a meaningful moment when it arrives, so it eagerly swells at the sight of every victory, effectively subverting any sense of impact. The more pressing sin is that it makes what is already an impossibly compelling account toothless and arid. A cover-up that spanned multiple Presidents and implemented iconic figures like Noam Chomsky, Henry Kissinger, and the Supreme Court, was dismantled by the efforts of a relatively small band of rogue officials and obstinate journalists. Together, they survived a pogrom affected by Nixon and became instrumental in putting an end to a causeless war. Yet there I was, slouched in the theatre, checking my watch before the third act and texting a friend of mine to inquire after a pair of gloves I lent him a few days prior.

The Post addresses the parallels between Nixon and our current commander in chief in a gratefully sober manner. Here’s the point, presented plainly: The votaries of journalistic integrity—men and women like Carl Bernstein, Gloria Emerson and Daniel Ellsberg—understood an administration that abuses executive power to silence and compromise scrutiny to be a toxic omen for all civil liberties. That’s how it begins. Complicate our ability and willingness to trust any and all media that censures policy, and Nuernberg is reborn.

The writers also highlight the plight of publisher Katharine Graham, Promethean figure in her own right and the author of the memoir, Personal History, which you should absolutely read. Again, Streep is just fine in the role, but the gravity of Graham’s part in one of the most incendiary scandals in American history is reduced to a half-baked arc and an awkward allusion to the gender revolution kindling during the events of the Pentagon Papers. This is the kind of film that welcomes soapbox rhetoric, especially as it pertains to matters so contemporary. Unfortunately, vagaries and pseudo-inspiring monologues rob the film of what could have been several powerful cinematic moments.  

There’s a lot to mine here if you come in already somewhat informed. Any contempt I feel for this otherwise harmless picture is aroused by the potential it squandered. The Pentagon Papers not only fathered a print rebellion in 1971, it also fathered a generation of young polemicists hungry to devour the false stipulations that kept millions of Americans in the dark. Perhaps there was a tiny, albeit artless, part of me that hoped maybe The Post might manage something like that—a tinder of inquisition and honesty that awakens a kind of determined ire from its audience. Alas, it was just another movie. Not a terrible one, but one that dropped the ball considerably.

It’s a thing we all understand intellectually, but seem to forget in practice: good-honest writers are invaluable to maintaining democracy. Gloria Emerson on the subject once said something echoed by many of her peers: “I didn’t write to be famous, I wrote to keep a record.” Voices, undeterred by tyranny, legislation and, in the unfortunate case of the American journalist Daniel Pearl, the pain of death, in their pursuit to ensure totalitarianism is kept at bay, manned down by the virtues of courage and cogency.  


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