Steven Spielberg’s Golden Globe-nominated biopic “The Post” revives the specific but timely story of the Pentagon Papers scandal and the ragtag journalists who went head-to-head with the Nixon administration to expose four decades of government corruption.
In the motion picture headlined by two hallmarks of American cinema — Meryl Streep as Washington Post publisher, Katharine Graham, and Tom Hanks as The Post’s hard-hitting editor, Ben Bradlee— Spielberg excavates the 1971 scandal, revealing unsettling parallels between the political climates of then and now.
“This is a story that is vaguely familiar to all of us in this day and age,” Spielberg told WSN in a video interview. “[It was] an audacious attempt for the president of the United States to attempt [to] silence our First Amendment rights.”
Familiar, indeed. Our current commander-in-chief, Donald Trump, holds a similar relationship to our fourth estate, which he has called “scum” and “the enemy of the people.” But let’s not forget the man who first named the press the real enemy decades ago.
The year is 1971. The voting age was lowered to 18, and a movie ticket costs barely a dollar. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher just ended free milk in schools, the Vietnam War is still ablaze and our government is embroiled in an international scandal at the helm of then-local paper, The Washington Post.
The Post and its competitor, the New York Times, race against the clock at the legal orders of Richard Nixon himself to expose the Pentagon Papers — a top-secret, 7000-page report detailing the government’s deceptions about the Vietnam War that spanned three decades, four U.S. presidents and thousands of U.S. soldiers’ lives.
“[It] was an audacious, never-meant-to-be-released-publicly study of the fact that the entire Vietnam War under four presidential administrations was a complete lie,” Hanks told WSN in a video interview. “Every administration knew [the war] was unwinnable and yet each administration committed more resources and more young men to that engagement in order not to suffer the humiliation of an American defeat on their presidential watch.”
The Nixon administration responded to the two publications with a federal injunction that halted any further publication of the Pentagon Papers. The Supreme Court responded, as well, but in favor the press, famously citing, “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors,” and the rest is history.
Today, a similar narrative has played out on our Twitter feeds, with Trump taking more than a few jabs at the press, both before and during his time in the Oval Office.
He has used his presidential weight and 140 characters — now 280 — to threaten the press relentlessly. At a rally in Fort Worth, Trump hinted at the arrival of new libel laws that will “sue [the press] like [they’ve] never been sued before,” claiming “with me, they’re not protected.”
The press has been made into a scapegoat to create an ever greater divide between the nation’s two major political parties. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, Democrats and Republicans disagree now more than ever on the press’s positive and/or negative role in society. Since Trump’s inauguration earlier this year, six-in-ten Republicans think media criticism does not keep our nation’s leaders in line. Nine-in-ten Democrats think differently.
With such evident parallels, Streep told WSN in a video interview that she hopes everyone takes something away from this film, even Trump himself.
“I actually think [Trump] may really like ‘The Post,’ weirdly,” Streep said. “[Maybe] he [will] stop the shenanigans and give some respect for people who are operating on their principles and not on their appetite.”
“The Post” is in theaters nationwide.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Jan. 22 print edition. Email Ryan Mikel at [email protected]