At the Movies — The Post
This weekend we saw The Post, Steven Spielberg’s new film that documents the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. These documents showed that US officials had known that the Vietnam war was folly for years, and were sending new soldiers off to die anyway. Daniel Ellsberg leaked the papers to the New York Times, which soon faced an injunction not to keep publishing. The Washington Post then decided to publish. The Nixon administration sought to suppress publication, but lost 6–3 at the Supreme Court. After that point both the Times and Post were free to publish.
Defenders of press freedom have long rejoiced at the outcome of this case. Any real democracy needs a stalwart free press, whose highest loyalty is to the truth let the chips fall where they may. The film dramatizes these episodes well, and conveys the great financial risks the Post took in deciding to publish. Katharine Graham, who became the publisher of the Post after the untimely death of her husband, faced skepticism that a woman was not up to the job. But she was very much up to the job, gloriously, even at the risk of damaging her relationships in elite Washington society. The film dramatizes these gender dynamics with skill and purpose.
The Post would be great viewing in any season. But it is absolutely essential now. Not since Nixon has a US President attacked the press with such fervor. And at least Nixon, however conniving and Machiavellian he might be, had political convictions and principles. Our current President is nothing more than a narcissist who values ignorance above knowledge, and cruelty above decency. We need the free press now more than ever. And you need to see The Post.