The Post

The Post

Posted on December 25, 2017 at 11:01 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking and drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Some wartime violence
Diversity Issues: Some sexist treatment
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2017
Date Released to DVD: April 16, 2018
Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox

Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), publisher of The Washington Post, is going over a list of financial and legal documents once again, rehearsing her answers to the questions she will be getting from bankers about selling shares in the company to the public for the first time. This job is one she never anticipated and never wanted. Her father had handed the business over to her husband and she had been perfectly content to be a mother and a socialite, hosting gracious parties and enjoying friendships with people who were important but never being important herself. But her husband has died — no, she reminds a colleague, he committed suicide. And so this is the job she has, even though the men around her are not sure she can do it and she is far from sure herself.

Daniel Ellsberg (“The Americans'” Matthew Rhys), a top aide to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), watches his boss tell reporters that the military was making progress in Vietnam, exactly the opposite of what Ellsberg had told him moments before. Later, working for the RAND Corporation think tank, he would take 47 volumes of reports on the government’s lies about the military efforts in Vietnam and send them to the New York Times. When the Nixon administration got a court order to stop further publication, it was shy, inexperienced Mrs. Graham who would have to decide whether she would risk her reputation, her family business, and even her freedom to continue to print the story.

And that, my friends in journalism, is why The Post, about the real-life publication of the Pentagon Papers, is not about the New York Times, which published them first, but about the then-considerably second-tier Washington Post and Mrs. Graham, who risked the collapse of the crucial deal to secure their finances, published second. This is about a woman who did not have greatness thrust upon her; she became great when greatness beckoned. And in playing Graham, we see a woman who began great and is still getting greater.

I know, I know, we’re all kind of over how great Meryl Streep is. She has given us so many decades of impeccable performances and inevitable awards nominations that we just take her for granted. But Streep’s performance in “The Post” is worthy of special attention because it shows us exactly what makes her the best actor of her generation. There’s nothing especially flashy about it. She did not have to learn a new language or transform herself as she has done in the past. Yet she is, as always, astonishingly precise in this film as Katharine Graham, a very private 1970’s socialite who is not yet aware of how fundamentally she is changing to become the leader of a major media outlet.

The very best actors convey a mixture of emotions. In “The Post,” the play of thoughts and feelings in Streep’s face as she seeks the courage to stand up to the men who are telling her what to do is like a master class in acting. She is nervous but resolute, insecure about her ability, unsure of her role, but certain about her commitment to the paper. We see how devoted she is to her family and her friends, the tribute she pays to the guest of honor at a cocktail party in the garden of her Georgetown mansion, her concern for her good friend Robert McNamara as he cares for his ailing wife, the way she softens in the middle of a tense conversation when a grandchild chases a ball into the room. But we also see her growing in the realization of the power of The Post and her own power as well.

Streep is not just superb at creating characters. She is a true ensemble player, never showboating but always seamlessly matching the rest of the cast, whether she is playing a notoriously awful singer in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” a house band front woman in “Rikki and the Flash,” or a British Prime Minister in “The Iron Lady,” to mention just a few of her most recent roles.

In “The Post” she once again blends into the ensemble and she plays a character who is used to deferring to men. So it is easy to overlook how specific and layered she is in showing us a woman who was quiet, unsure, and, frequently condescended to by the men she worked with. As the shy heiress who unexpectedly became the publisher of The Washington Post when her husband committed suicide, Streep shows us the struggle, the spirit, and ultimately the determination of the woman who took the paper from a small local publication to fearless coverage of Watergate that brought down the Nixon administration.

As the movie begins, Graham is practicing for the biggest challenge she has had since taking over the paper that her father had given to her husband. The company is going to go public and she will have to persuade the bankers that even with the family maintaining control it is going to be a good investment. She is hyper-diligent; as one of the men points out, she is the only one who has read through all of the technical financial and legal documents, and she has made extensive notes for herself. We see her rehearsing her answers and when the time comes and she cannot get the words out, we see how hard she is trying and how much she wants to be the business executive the company needs. Watch Streep as Graham becomes in each scene less of the shy socialite who was unfailingly gracious to the paper’s sources, subjects, and rivals. Watch her become not just an executive but a journalist and a passionate defender of freedom of the press as she spars, first tentatively and then hitting her stride with Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) over his own blind spots in putting friendship before reporting the story. Watch her as her close friend, whose reputation she is about to help destroy, shocks her by showing her his own fundamental integrity, and just try to look anywhere else as she reads aloud a note from her daughter and as she quietly but firmly and authoritatively does at the end of the film what she could not do at the beginning – thinks for herself and makes a decision based on her own sure sense of what is right for the paper and the country.

This movie brings us back to a time when trust in government and media was high. The Pentagon Papers was the first major leak of the modern era, followed by the Cointelpro documents revealed which revealed abuses by the FBI and led to major reforms and increased oversight. The discovery that three Presidents and their administrations had lied about the prospects of success in Vietnam was the political equivalent of “the call is coming from inside the house.” It had a seismic effect on Americans already in the midst of one of the country’s most tumultuous periods of protest and upheaval.

This movie makes it clear that the press had its own credibility issue at the time. Mrs. Graham points out to Bradlee that his close friendship with President Kennedy compromised his integrity as a journalist, as he asks her not to let her close friendship with McNamara compromise hers.

On top of all that, and its uncanny timeliness, it is whalloping good story about secrets and honor and Bob Odenkirk all but steals the film from two of the biggest stars in Hollywood history with his performance as Ben Bagdikian, the reporter with a hunch and a Rolodex who tracked down the papers for the Post. The last scene cheekily sets it up as a prequel to “All the President’s Men.” We can hope both are a prequel to future films about reporters dedicated to telling the story.

Parents should know that this film includes brief footage of the war in Vietnam, reference to suicide, and some strong language.

Family discussion: How did Mrs. Graham change and why? What did Ben Bagdikian mean about being part of a revolution?

If you like this, try: “All the President’s Men” and Mrs. Graham’s superb autobiography

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Interview: Daniel Ellsberg

Interview: Daniel Ellsberg

Posted on February 8, 2010 at 3:59 pm

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg, a documentary just nominated for an Oscar, is the story of the man who gave secret government documents about the Vietnam war to newspapers for publication in 1971. The impact of his leak was seismic. And it continues to reverberate today as many of the same issues of military strategy and government accountability are debated by another generation.

Dr. Ellsberg, a one-time hawk on the war who had served as a Marine and worked in the Department of Defense, wrote his own book about his experiences and his views, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. His dissertation, Risk, Ambiguity and Decision, is still considered a major contribution. I spoke to Dr. Ellsberg about the past, the present, war, peace, and the movie.

Are you the most dangerous man in America?

Not at the moment. Fom the point of view of the Obama administration it would be whoever leaked the secret cables of Ambassador Eikenberry, to the Times. I had not seen facsimile copies like that since the Pentagon papers. I am sure there is a tremendous search to find out who was responsible. It’s quite contrary to what Eikenberry testified to in Congress about being fully in accord to McChrystal’s recommendations for sending more troupes. The cables gave the lie to that, a warning against any such involvement.

Why were you considered so dangerous?

It wasn’t what has already been leaked that was the problem, it was their worry about what might be next. Kissinger feared I would put out material on Nixon, and that brought him down. It was that fear that led Nixon to get personally involved in illegal activity to try to stop me. And that led to his resignation and that led to the end of the war.

The movie doesn’t make really clear why I was regarded as the most dangerous man. Krogh referred to the fact that they thought I had documents on Nixon. That was why they went into my doctor’s office. That was the part that involved the president himself, in the case of the actions against me they had a number of witnesses that he ordered that himself. If it weren’t for that, he would not have had to cover up because the trail didn’t lead to him. The important thing was not to find out what I had as much as to keep me from putting it out.

They knew I had some material directly from Nixon’s office, because I had given it to Senator Matthias who wanted to be a Republican white knight. They had to worry about it without knowing exactly what it was, they had to take extreme measures including sending people to beat me up or possibly kill me.

The movie portrays you as a hero to many people. Who are your heroes?

Howard Zinn, one of the greatest human beings on earth. Noam Chomsky. People who have openly refused to go to war. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. I met met Rosa Parks on the way to my arraignment. I took a toothbrush and went off to a football field where they were meeting in New Orleans. If it weren’t for Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King I wouldn’t be where I am today. I was talking to her and said “You’re my hero,” and she said, “You’re my hero.” You can imagine what that meant to me.

Why this time? What made the difference? She said, “I had given up my seat to a white woman a number of times but had never been asked to give it up to a white man. I asked myself what I would do? I didn’t know what I would do.” When the moment came, she knew, and she said no. It is the way things happen.

You don’t know what you are doing or how you will respond until you get into it, but it helps to think about it beforehand. The situation has arisen before and people think about it and then they are cocked like a pistol and ready to do it. Now is the time.

You were a team player and then decided to play for a bigger team.

That’s well put! A much bigger team in numbers. The key thing there was meeting people who were on the larger team like Bob Eaton. We stood in a vigil line for him, he was going to prison for draft resistance. Stepping into that vigil line, standing in front of the post office on a hot day, when I had been writing something for Nixon, I could not do both. It was like the first date with Patricia, marching around the White House and worrying that a picture of me might appear in the Post.

I didn’t have a good excuse for getting out of going to the protest. I thought of saying I was sick that day but I was shamed into standing in that line. Once you’re in the line it was like stepping over the line at a recruiting station. I had stepped over a line and was recruited into the anti-war movement. Passing out leaflets instead of writing memos for the President, in my mind I had shifted sides from being an insider to being a citizen. Days later I had the experience of seeing Randy Keeler, but I don’t know if it would have had the same effect except for having been at that vigil.

Pastor Martin Niemoller was testifying while I was at the vigil, and he had a big influence on me. I was at the same war resister’s conference. I am still not a total pacifist. He had been a U-Boat commander in WWI. He was imprisoned in 38 or 39 and spent the war in Dachau. The famous quote always puzzled me.

In Germany, they first came for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Catholic. Then they came for me — and by that time there was nobody left to speak up.

He did speak out, so what is he talking about? He is describing the attitude of the average German. He told me that he had not been a pacifist in the second World War. He thought Hitler should have been opposed. He didn’t become a pacifist until 1950 when Heisenberg informed him about the coming H-Bomb. And that made him a nuclear pacifist. I was having lunch with a couple of pacifists and arguing with them as I had often done, a strong argument against total pacifism is the Brits who fired at the bombers over London.

Why do you oppose our military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan?

The last thing that you do is the thing that Al-Qaeda wants to you to do. Osama bin Laden wanted us to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, which was his enemy anyway. Even better would be to attack Iran, his enemy, to get the Muslim world against us. We fell right into Obama’s trap, born and bred in the brier patch; he wanted that oil. I have no doubt that he prefers us to be fighting in Afghanistan forever. I would have cooperated with the rest of the world including people we do not like, make it easy for them to cooperate with us and share their information about those who want to attack us. There are ways to respond without generating recruits for the terrorists. Getting the oil was more important than Al-Qaeda, so that is where Bush went.

But you said you are not a complete pacifist. So how do you decide when force is necessary?

I was giving Niemoller my example of the Brits, etc. You could not stop Hitler’s blitzkriegs with non-violence. Non-violence would not have saved the Jews. As in the old cartoons a light bulb appeared over my head — violence didn’t save the Jews, nothing saved the Jews. They all died. Here was the cruncher, the ace up the sleeve, partly because we didn’t use our violence to save the Jews. It made me remember something by Raoul Wallenberg. The Holocaust could not have been carried out except in wartime conditions. You need the secrecy. I went to Neimoller and said is it possible that the resistance that people put up to Hitler was at the expense of the Jews? I thought he would take time but he said right away, “It cost the Jews their lives.” I have always realized that. It doesn’t mean that people weren’t justified in resisting but far from saving them, it doomed the Jews.

I asked what else am I wrong about?

What do you want from the movie?

If more people see the movie we will have more leakers like the Eickenberry cables and that will be for the good.

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