This film arrives in our cinemas at a pivotal moment in Scotland’s history. The press was established by its founders to serve the governed not the governors. Now they reverse that principle. In reprisal Scotland’s press is held to account like no time in its history.
With a few notable exceptions where integrity and intelligence shine – I’m thinking of Lesley Riddoch and Iain Macwhirter – Scotland’s press refuses to protect the welfare of the nation. They are united in doing all they can to bring it to heel. BBC Scotland is their cheerleader, STV to a lesser extent. Anybody who doesn’t squeeze a tube of toothpaste from the bottom up is a damn troublemaker, fit for humiliation.
When director Steven Spielberg was shooting The Post in 2017, the story of why and how the Pentagon Papers were published, it acquired a pressing urgency. (Excuse the pun.) His nation voted for a regressive presidential candidate whose sole purpose is to repeal all legislation that does not make the wealthy richer and more powerful than ever. Like Scotland’s millionaire unionists who fear a fair society, he lies and bullies protecting his interests, and is impervious to reason.
Taking on those thugs calls for a barrow load of courage.
We ask ourselves, what price integrity?
To my mind the real hero of the Pentagon Papers was Daniel Ellsberg, the Julian Assange-Edward Snowden of his age. As a government observer Ellsberg saw first-hand what was happening in Vietnam, a war three successive presidents hid from public view telling the American people the US was merely acting as observers. Later this became “assisting the South Vietnamese”, one of the most corrupt regimes in history. Silently, over time, the USA moved in troops, and hid the body bags when they arrived back in the USA.
Ellsberg, knowing he could be jailed, removed a ton of top secret reports all stating categorically a war in Vietnam could not be won. Over weeks Ellsberg photo-copied the documents. The New York Times published extracts. That task is accomplished in seconds today: we tap ‘Download’ and then ‘Send’.
Ellsberg was charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 along with theft and conspiracy, carrying a total maximum sentence of over 100 years but was exonerated when the government’s deceit was made plain in court. Meanwhile, paranoid, vindictive President Nixon, ‘Tricky Dicky’, as close to a Mafia overlord as a president can get, went to war on the press. His was the ugly face of patriotism, the USA was not used to losing wars, and Nixon was determined not to lose face.
First-time screenwriter Liz Hannah chooses to focus attention not on Ellsberg but upon the editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee and his relationship with the owner of the paper, Katharine Graham. If the story had kept Ellsberg at its centre – one person’s story tells us more than any complicated weave – the tension might have been greater throughout, but as it is Spielberg gives us a very intelligent, lucid, fast-paced drama about crusading journalism and the power of the press.
The First Amendment was under attack – the sacrosanct principle that prevents Congress from making any law prohibiting or abridging freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Ben Bradlee, (Tom Hanks) is a rough, gruff, dedicated editor desperately keen to steal a march from New York’s biggest selling newspaper, The New York Times.
To Bradlee’s chagrin The Post was scooped by the Times when that paper obtained a chunk of the government report. But after a court order served by President Nixon and his goons halted the Times publication, the Post got hold of its own copy and made the risky decision to publish. It was high risk, a tense time for staff and owner, Graham, who was in the middle of raising investment for her newspaper on the US Stock Exchange. Taking on the president of the USA could scare off banks.
The writers make Graham’s relationship with her editor the main story and it works well. The figure of Graham, the widowed socialite plonked into the publisher’s chair by her husband’s suicide, is gripping as we watch her mature from uncertain entrepreneur amid a crowd of suits to hard bitten champion of justice.
Meryl Streep plays Graham slightly aloof from the cut and thrust of the newspaper she loves, a plausible interpretation, a bumbling uncertain figure lost among big time male players. She is coached what to say at board meetings by a trusted colleague, but when there loses her nerve, fiddling with her glasses, silenced not censored by the men.
There are tricky passages of exposition Streep has to handle, clunky even in the hands of this consummate actress. The worst is given to Bradlee’s wife, (Sarah Paulson) emphasising Graham’s courage. Spielberg’s long-time collaborator, cameraman Janusz Kaminski, has trouble knowing where to place the camera to create energy. For the rest of the time he shoots the story in muted colours, as if old news cuttings.
Hanks’s gets a lot of Bradlee’s character spot on, the gruff voice too, constantly hitching up his trousers by the belt. His impatience provides a foil for Graham; never usurping her authority as owner of the newspaper. He’s not the Scottish newspaper editors I’ve worked with, bullies, drunks, objectionable foul-mouthed Anglophiles, but one line rang true. Annoyed by a staffer unsure if he can meet a critical two hour deadline, Bradlee barks out, “Let’s pretend you’re a journalist and not a writer”.
(Interviews with Bradlee are on YouTube.)
Critics dislike the penultimate scene with Graham and Bradlee back lit in a sunny glow, walking among the Post’s presses as the great iron and steel machines whirl out the latest edition of the Pentagon Papers, a truly Spielbergian sentimental moment. I didn’t mind it. It is a counterpoint to the last scene, the break-in at the Watergate Building, Nixon’s downfall, and as we know, a seminal film called ‘All the President’s Men’.
For my part the best performance comes from Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, his face perpetually contorted in pain knowing he risks a year’s jail for every word he types, the kind of old-school reporter who endangers his health on coffee and doughnuts following a scoop. Aye, integrity for him held a high price. There’s a comic scene where he tries to make a call from a street pay phone and nervous as hell drops all his coins, pen and paper everywhere at the wrong moment.
So, why does The Post have echoes of Scotland’s pitiful press and media?
Graham was close with McNamara and other powerful Washington insiders; they were often at her house, enjoying cocktails and insider chat, even as Bradlee and his reporters were trying to unearth the dirt. Bradlee was a great pal of the Kennedys, in the same way BBC Scotland’s prized journalist Kirsty Wark, and her producer husband, were best pals of Labour’s plodding Union Jack McConnell, friendly enough to stay at his holiday home completely compromising her journalistic integrity. She is still employed by the BBC.
The hacks who think Scotland is North England are beyond redemption, their geography and their history as piss poor as their writing skills.
Scotland’s newspapers and broadcasters are our national shame. They lie constantly. Nothing the SNP has ever said about journalists has been harsh, nor have they done anything one could describe as punitive. The SNP ask for fair play, honesty, precision, pointing out the obvious, London rules the roost not Edinburgh, yet they are accused by our malicious press of acting like Nixon.
Ben Bradlee’s outburst at conniving politicians sits well with Scotland’s press: “They’re shitting all over our civil rights, the Constitution, and the Geneva Convention!”
The US could do with the spirit of the Washington Post again. It resembles ours, devious, shallow, pro-establishment, avoiding the real issues. Scotland asks for something better – a press dedicated to one aim. The Truth.
- Star Rating: Four
- Cast: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, David Cross
- Director: Steven Spielberg
- Writers: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
- Cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski
- Composer: John Williams
- Rating: 12A
- Duration: 1 hour 54 mins
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?