CINEMA: Paper Trail


THE POST (Directed by Steven Spielberg, 115 minutes, USA, 2017)

CHRIS MALENEYBY CHRISTOPHER MALENEY FILM CRITIC Is Nixon done to death? With two movies out in the past six months alone, I have to wonder how much more we can squeeze out of the years between 1968 to 1974. It’s gotten to the point where they’re making prequels to classics like All the President’s Men; it won’t be long until they do a remake of it. Anyway, this year’s recycling of the journalistic wet dream that was the Nixon saga is The Post, which retells for film the real events of the Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers and subsequent rise to national significance. The difficulty with discussing a historic movie is that we must separate the real events from how the film portrays them. In lauding or panning a historic movie, we do not pass judgement on the events themselves but on how the filmmaker depicts the events, and what they are trying to say about modern times.

So, just what were the Pentagon Papers? Well, for anyone who didn’t live through the events, or who didn’t pay attention in American History class, the Pentagon Papers were a study commissioned by Robert Mcnamara, the Secretary of Defense for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, that outlined the history of American involvement in Vietnam, and south-east Asia generally, from 1945 to 1967. The seven thousand page study showed how the government lied about the scope of the war, the aims of the war, and its ability to be won. They showed how the American government manipulated elections in South Vietnam, conducted illegal operations, and then lied about it all. When the Pentagon Papers were printed, the people were shocked. Imagine the naivete of the times! This was the first time in a long while, possibly ever, that the machinations of the American state were stripped bare, the first time people realized the government was lying to them, the first time people were told that the expressed morality of the United States government was at odds with the sheer brutality of imperialist capitalism.

The United States has been at war in one form or another for almost my whole life. We’ve been in Afghanistan since I was in kindergarden. We’ve been in Iraq since I was in second grade. Today, that list includes Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Niger, and a number of other top-secret locations, you can be sure. The point is, none of us are surprised anymore. Most of us aren’t even concerned. Sure there are distractions. Sure, the optics on it are better than in the sixties and seventies. But overall, we’re just numb. We don’t care how many civilians get blown up by drones, how many kids are murdered by security forces. Bush, Obama, Trump — nothing changes but the names and the numbers. And yet, as Kennedy states at the beginning of the film, we know that America never starts wars. We know we’re the good guys.

So it is commendable that what Spielberg wants to show us in The Post is that whistleblowers and leakers deserve protections to reveal the abuses of the state. They should function as a check on power; I’m sure James Risen would agree. The film glorifies the choice that the editors and publishers of the Washington Post took to print the Pentagon Papers, and it was a daring choice. Good on them. The trouble is that the biggest risk the characters run is losing a lot of money. Katherine Graham, the paper’s owner, runs the risk of seeing her whole fortune vanish if bankers withdraw from the Post’s impending Initial Public Offering. Everyone, she tells us at one point, has a lot to lose — a line that would be a lot stronger if she wasn’t speaking about a room full of millionaires. And this might be true to history, but is that the ultimate narrative concern? At a time when people are being threatened, jailed, even murdered by the government, is the most daring risk really to lose millions of dollars?

I appreciate what is going on in this movie. I think it is important to have a movie where people discover that the motivating ideology of their country is not as benevolent as the national narrative has lead them to believe. I like how the message is established with audio and visual quotes of real persons juxtaposed over the revelations of the Pentagon Papers. My problem is that this analysis of ideology and actuality does not go nearly far enough. The film never explores why the message and the facts become so mixed. Pride, it suggests, and inertia, are what kept us in Vietnam so long. A simplistic reading of history, to be sure.
And there is some difficulty, too, with how the film wants us to treat the press. We’re supposed to believe that all journalists are crusaders, fighters for the American dream, who defy unjust wars wherever they’re spotted. It’s like the Spanish-American War never happened. It’s like the Washington Post never printed the word ‘irrefutable’ in 2003. The narrative’s message is a simplistic treatment of journalism, just like its examination of Katherine Graham’s life is a simplistic examination of feminist theory. If all you want is reassurance in dark times, this might do the trick. If you need meat on the bones, well, stick to reading books or something. Start with David Halberstam‘s The Best And Brightest.