First Amendment Protection

Since our extra-successful weekend errand running finished up so quickly, I decided to use some of that time watching movies, as well as the reading I’ve already mentioned enjoying. And, with last holiday weekend signaling the end of May, I decided to start my film selections by taking a quick look at the HBO list to see what movies are about to drop off of rotation, in case I wanted to see any of them before I lose my chance. (You may recall that’s how I started doing film reviews on here in the first place.)

There was only one movie that jumped out at me form the “departing May 31st” list, but it was a film well worth seeing: Steven Spielberg’s The Post.

The is the second movie in my recent rotation that is based on real-life events in the 1970s that have a disquieting level of historic/thematic relevance today in the age of Trump. But whereas BlackKKlansman was referent to the rise of White Supremacy that has, at least in part, been inspired by this administration, The Post speaks to this administration’s ongoing war on America’s free press and journalistic institutions.

The Post depicts the controversy surrounding the New York Times‘ and the Washington Post’s decision to publish excerpts of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. For the uninitiated, this report—officially (and boringly) titled the “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force”—was the documentation of a study conducted between 1967 and 1969, intended to make an unbiased examination of the U.S. Government’s involvement in Vietnam and Indochina from 1945 onward. And unbiased it certainly was, documenting a sequence of untruths and deceptions perpetrated by 4 different Presidential administrations as our involvement in the Vietnam conflict deepened.

In a move that should surprise exactly no one, this report was initially scuttled into storage. But one of the analysts and report authors decided it was necessary for the wider American public to learn of this history of deception. So he managed to make and smuggle out photocopies of a few thousand report pages which he then shared with these two newspapers. When the NYT‘s article series was shut down by a legal injunction,  WaPo picked up the baton. Both newspapers took the case in front of the Supreme Court, which ruled by a 6-3 majority in favor of the First Amendment and the free press.


So yeah, the resonances are rich ones. In some ways, unfortunately, those waters ran a little too rich for me. There were just enough moments when the dialogue was thematically heavy-handed, or the circumstances skidded too close to melodrama that it gave me sort of a cringing response to the film’s awareness of its own topical importance.

Despite that, the film was invariably and exquisitely rescued from every almost-false note by the strength and skill of the acting troupe Spielberg assembled for this film. Gifted actors shine in tiny roles (especially Matthew Rhys as Daniel Ellsberg, Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara and Sarah Paulson as Tony Bradlee), and then there is, of course, the masterful work done by Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in the roles of WaPo editors Ben Bradlee and publisher/owner Kay Graham. Both actors bring a grounded humanity to these larger-than-life characters. This is especially true of Hanks, who not only has to contend with Bradlee’s persona, but also the long shadow of Jason Robard’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Bradlee in All the President’s Men.(1)

However, for me, Streep’s portrayal of Kay Graham is the beating heart of this film. Her journey from being the only woman in the WaPo board room–silent, intimidated, ignored silent devalued–towards finding her own professional voice and strength in that setting is one that has its own resonance for me as a woman who was just beginning her own journey on this planet when Graham took on the boy’s club and the Nixon White House. And won.


(1) I’m assuming a whole host of productive comparisons could be made between these two films depicting different press-driven crises in Nixon’s presidency. Alas, I have yet to see All the President’s Men, so that compare-contrast essay will have to wait for another day.


Image credit: Flickr user Miguel Angel Aranda, public domain.

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