By Willie Johnson | United States
Watching the first few minutes of The Post, you’d think it was a modern war thriller set in the Jungles of 1966 Vietnam. With washed out colors and intense bursts of action, the longhaired observer seen among a unit of combat-hardened Marines hardly seems relevant to the story. The actions he takes as a result of this experience, however, set the stage for the rest of the film.
This military analyst-turned revolutionary (played by the enigmatic Matthew Rhys) is none other than Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the ‘Pentagon Papers’ to the American public first through the New York Times and then—you guessed it—through the Washington Post, just a struggling local paper at the time. At this point, though, he’s only just slipped the secret documents away. His motivations are made clear on his trip back from Vietnam through his conversations with the two-faced Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who privately voices his beliefs that the Vietnam War is unwinnable but assures the public that progress is being made.
Flash forward to 1971. Nixon is in office and the U.S. is entrenched in Southeast Asia. This time the focus is on Kay Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post (played by an occasionally overacting Meryl Streep) who is confronted with the decision to make the paper public amidst fierce competition with other publications. Her right-hand man and chief editor, Ben Bradlee (played by the expectedly likable Tom Hanks), bears the weight of the hands-on office work while Kay struggles to hold her own in a male-dominated industry and maintain her life as a Washington socialite.
In the midst of this bustling day-to-day in the newspaper industry, a new article by the infamous Neil Sheehan in the New York Times reveals an important message from the documents stolen by Ellsberg years before—the American people have been lied to about the conflict in Vietnam since the end of the Second World War. This breakthrough sparks public outrage and compels Graham and the colorful staff of The Post to take any means necessary to get a piece of the glory and raise the profile of their beloved paper. They get more than they bargained for after Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) obtains Ellsberg’s copy of the secret report, however, when Nixon takes The Times to court and threatens to do the same for our protagonists.
Graham is forced to make a vital decision—either follow the advice of Bradlee and his reporters and publish their pieces of the report or submit to the pleas of her restrictive lawyers and business advisors by playing it safe.
It’s not hard to imagine what she does next, but more important are the messages of support for free speech and government transparency sprinkled throughout. Several staff members of The Post mention that Nixon’s decision to prosecute The Times is an overreach of executive power, and even point out the danger that his actions pose to the Constitution. These actions fly in the face of not only the First Amendment but historical precedent too. Bradlee and his reporters are unwavering, however; In the face of similar punishment, their resolve to follow the path of liberty is admirable.
News is the first rough draft of history
Freedom of the press is clearly the main theme, but also significant is the film’s criticism of the often-underhanded nature of Cold War presidents. Even historically well-liked leaders such as Eisenhower and Kennedy are shown to be a part of the conspiracy to keep Vietnam out of communist hands through unethical means, an unpleasant surprise that only heightens public uproar. Although a president is expected to keep certain things confidential for the welfare of the country and its allies, the American people deserve to be fully informed when the lives of their sons are at stake.
Both of these themes are are strikingly similar to current issues facing America today. As the tendencies of President Trump become progressively authoritarian, the constitutional protections featured in this film remain as relevant as ever. His clear opposition to most major media outlets isn’t entirely without merit, but any threat he aims to level against the free press should be interpreted as a major red flag. If The Post teaches us anything, some things are worth risking everything for—whether that’s revealing the truth to the public or protecting the integrity of our founding document.