A LOOK AT 2017 FILMS NOMINATED FOR PROMINENT OSCARS
BY LEE PFEIFFER
Stephen Spielberg directs another winner with "The Post", which covers in spellbinding detail the legal and political intrigue leading up to the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Then, as now, the New York Times and the Washington Post were locked in a professional competition, as the two symbols of the gold standard of American newspapers. The film begins with a brief segment set in 1966 in the battle zones of Vietnam as we watch military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) on a Pentagon mission to personally evaluate how the war is unfolding on the ground. Ellsberg is reporting to President Lyndon Johnson's Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). The U.S. military presence which began modestly under presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy has been ratcheted up to new heights, with LBJ's administration pouring increasing numbers of troops and resources into beleaguered South Vietnam to thwart the invasion from the communist north. Ellsberg shares his findings with McNamara and they are not encouraging. He sees the U.S effort as stymied and incurring increasing costs in blood and treasure with only incremental, temporary gains on the battlefield. McNamara informs Ellsberg that he shares his conclusions but continues to assure the American public that things are going swimmingly and that victory is inevitable. Disillusioned, Ellsberg continues his services to the Pentagon while stateside and contributes to the massive study of the war that ultimately became known as the Pentagon Papers. He concluded that while the Johnson administration concurred the best America could hope for was a costly stalemate in Vietnam, the American public would continue to be mislead by the president and his key military personnel. Ultimately, Ellsberg- at great personal legal risk to himself- managed to photocopy the massive report and leak it to the New York Times, which began printing key aspects of the papers. The publication became an international sensation but the Times was served with an injunction by a judge to cease publication while the courts considered whether further aspects of the papers could be suppressed due to the fact that they were considered Top Secret documents by the Nixon administration.
With the Times fighting the administration in court, Washington Post editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) senses an opportunity to capitalize on his rivals' court-imposed inertia. The Post's assistant editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) suspects the leaker was Ellsberg, an old acquaintance. He gets Ellsberg to photocopy the papers he had originally given to the Times and turn them over to the Post- but this puts in play a legal and ethical dilemma. The Post is owned and run by Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), a Washington socialite and heiress who inherited the newspaper from her revered late husband. The unspoken feeling among even her staffers is that a woman is not fully capable of running such a business. Indeed, the Post is facing financial hardships and Graham makes the difficult decision to raise capital by selling shares in the company. Bradlee imposes on her to take the moral initiative and allow the Post to print excerpts from the Pentagon Papers while the Times is precluded from doing so. The brilliant script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer follows in painstaking detail the risks that Graham had to evaluate by doing so. The threat of inevitable legal action by the Nixon administration to keep the Papers suppressed might scare away investors and lead the Post into insolvency. Against this is Bradlee's compelling argument that a free press must reveal the lies that the American people have continued to be told by the current president and his military brass. (Note: although Nixon wasn't president when the Pentagon Papers were completed, he had good reason to keep them under wraps because he was continuing to follow the same practices as Johnson's administration and had made a campaign promise that he had a "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War when, in fact, he intended to keep escalating it).
Spielberg manages the difficult task of turning "The Post", which is enhanced by a typically fine score by John Williams, into a suspense-packed Cold War thriller despite the fact that we already know the outcome. It's no small feat and he's enabled by superb performances by Hanks and Streep, who plays Graham as a woman on the razor's edge of landmark historical decision. Ultimately, she decides to go for broke and defy the president by publishing the Papers in the hope that the Supreme Court will side with the Post on the basis that the American people have a right to know when they are being lied to by their elected officials. Nixon is only seen as distant figure through the White House windows but his presence looms large over the drama. When Graham finally gives permission to get the presses rolling with the story, it's the kind of rousing scene that draws cheers from audiences. Nixon would survive this scandal and go on to win a massive re-election victory the following year, but the publication of the Papers forced him to ultimately sue for peace and begin withdrawing American troops. Ironically, he would lock horns with the Post once again when the Watergate scandal unraveled in its pages- and lead to his political demise. It's all hinted at in the film's poignant epilogue.
At a time when the bastion of America's democracy- its free press- is once again under intense attack by politicians who may have a lot to hide, Spielberg's big wet kiss to the nation's "fourth estate" comes as a welcome reminder that real heroes aren't confined to battlefields but also can be found in the mundane settings of newsrooms.
"The Post" has been nominated for Best Picture and Best Actress (Meryl Streep).