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Go and see The Post, but it isn’t quite first class viewing

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The Pentagon Papers exposed the US lies about Vietnam by successive governments. The battle to publish them could be gripping, says Sam Lorde
Issue 2588
Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) discuss revealing the establishment’s crimes
Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) discuss revealing the establishment’s crimes

The press is under attack by a US president desperate to preserve his position and willing to stoop to any level in this aim. The year is 1971.

Stephen Spielberg’s latest film has won a clutch of five star reviews.

“The best picture of the year. There is no more important film this year,” said Time magazine.

The Evening Standard helpfully explains it’s all a metaphor for the Trump White House and Fake News.

The Post is a good film—political and thrilling.

But it’s just not as good or clever as it thinks it is.

The action centres around the leaking of the Pentagon Papers.

These were documents which showed that president after president had lied about the war in Vietnam and about the US’s relationship with Vietnam before the war as well.

The papers were leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, one of the analysts. They had been compiled by a group of academics at the defence secretary Robert McNamara’s request.

The film tells the real-life fight to publish them.

In the opening scenes we’re shown successive presidents making statements about the war while a character reads parts of the papers which reveal these as lies.

The action moves along at enough of a clip to keep it engaging. But it trips up at the attempts to draw parallels to today.

Meryl Streep plays The Washington Post’s owner Kay Graham.


She makes difficult decisions in the face of suffocating boardroom sexism. She gains confidence through the film until she throws down the gauntlet to the US state and publishes excerpts of the papers.

At the court house a member of the prosecution approaches Graham and thanks her for publishing. “My brother’s still over there,” she says.

Vietnams blow to US empire
Vietnam’s blow to US empire
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We’re reminded frequently that important people are looking out for our best interests.

Tom Hanks’s character Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post, tells us repeatedly, “The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish.” The freedom of the press is held up as a universal truth. Brave editors and business owners stand up to other powerful people and fight on our behalf.

“The days of us smoking cigars together… are over,” says Bradlee about his relationship with politicians.

Apparently the Pentagon papers are a historical turning point.

But cosy relationships between politicians and the media are far from buried—just think of Rupert Murdoch and Tony Blair,or Donald Trump and Fox News.

The problem with drawing wrong historical parallels is that there are plenty of real parallels in history.

“An operation essential to American security.” That’s what the Washington Post said about the 2003 Iraq War.

The Post rightly attacks Richard Nixon and the other US presidents who killed millions in Vietnam. Maybe when a film is made about Iraq its media cheerleaders will be attacked as much as they deserve to be.

See The Post if you like political thrillers, but make sure you take a pinch of salt with you.

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