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An Enthusiastic and Heartfelt Bravo for "The Post"

January 24, 2018

“The Founding Fathers created a free press to serve the governed, not the governors.” That’s the money line in director Steven Spielberg’s fiercely gripping and extraordinarily timely new film, “The Post,” starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks as the publisher and editor of the Washington Post, Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee.

The words are those of Justice Hugo Black in the June, 1971 Supreme Court opinion that freed the way for the New York Times and the Post to continue to publish the Pentagon Papers, the 7000-page “Top Secret—Sensitive” government document that revealed how every administration since Truman had systematically lied to the American public about a hubristically misguided military action that only succeeded in prolonging an unwinnable Vietnam War. Black went on to state “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”

What message could be more necessary and telling at a time when the current occupant of the White House refers to a free press as “the enemy of the people?” What could be more effective in countering Trump’s heedless and self-serving mendacity than a movie that stirs the emotions as well as the intellect with an engrossing personal story wrapped around a powerful, highly moral, foundational American principle?

An hour or two of talking heads on cable news, perhaps? I don’t think so.

Spielberg is a great entertainer, but it’s clear he’s also aware of the power of his art form to convey information and stimulate emotions that can produce positive change, or strengthen socially valuable behavior or beliefs—in this case, the need for truth in government. An important secondary theme of “The Post” is the empowerment of women, as Katherine Graham gains confidence and takes control in a male-dominated world. Variety reports that this was the original attraction of the script when the ascension of Hillary Clinton seemed inevitable, but “Propelled by alarm at the election of Donald Trump last year, Spielberg and his lead actors” suspended work on several other projects and “put ‘The Post’ in front of cameras in record time, starting production in May of this year and bringing it to theaters in a scant six months.” Kudos to all who made this impossible timeline happen!

Hopefully, the public will respond enthusiastically to Spielberg’s message. Sadly, thus far they seem to be as deeply split as the electorate. As of this writing, with a limited sample of 41 Amazon reviewers, 35-40 percent of presumed Trump supporters in the national polls have morphed into 54 percent of one-star reviewers, with only 34 percent awarding “The Post” five stars. Many of the one-star reviewers unaccountably fault the acting, perhaps reflecting Trump’s assessment of Meryl Streep as “overrated.” I surmise they are the ones who lack the courage of those who headlined their comments, “Fake News on the Silver Screen,” and “Fake News WashPo Pats Itself on the back.”

Thus far the elitist professionals have not helped as much as they might. While acknowledging that “The Post” is great entertainment, they have chided it for driving home that very message so strongly and appealing to “middle-brow” tastes.

The first line of the review in the New York Times was, “Steven Spielberg’s exhilarating drama ‘The Post’ is about a subject that’s dear to the heart of journalists: themselves!” Really? Manolha Dargis goes on to say that there’s “more than a little corn and wishful thinking in the high-minded moments in ‘The Post’,” before finally conceding “Mr. Spielberg, a shrewd entertainer who can be waylaid by moralism, rarely lets virtue drag this movie down.”

Should you think that subtle cattiness was due to the Times’s reflexive jealousy for not getting enough cinematic credit for being the original publisher of the Pentagon Papers, there’s little home-field advantage in the review in the Washington Post. After a spot-on headline, “In ‘The Post,’ Streep and Hanks lead a stirring homage to the pursuit of truth,” the reviewer opines that “Spielberg plays up the personal, professional and political stakes with efficiency and legibility, but in ways that occasionally risk spilling over into obviousness. And, as he so often does, the director tacks on an extra ending for the benefit of the cheap seats that always come first in his calculations, subtlety be damned. And subtlety is damned, for eternity, in John Williams’s shamelessly manipulative score.” By the way, that “extra ending” was as a flash-forward scene of the discovery of the Watergate break-in, hardly irrelevant to the overriding message or the future role of the Washington Post.

As for the awards scene, the “best picture” featured in the poster is from the little-known National Board of Review. “The Post” did earn six nominations, but no awards from the Golden Globes. Shockingly, it was shut out by the Screen Actor’s Guild, not even a single nomination. As for the Oscars, the film earned only two nominations—best picture and best actress for Meryl Streep—far behind the thirteen for “The Shape of Water.” If history is any indication, it will win none.

And that’s a crying shame. If there was ever a movie that the American public needed to see this year, it is “The Post.” I doubt there will a better cinematic lesson about what truly makes America great. It is a magnificent and moving piece of entertainment, and a powerful—dare I say it?—social protest movie. Be a proud middle-brow! Go see it immediately! And tell anyone who’ll listen to do the same, in person and on social media. Run into the streets and shout if necessary.

Your country needs you. Your country needs freedom of the press. Your country needs "The Post."