Attempting to start with a grabber, Steven Spielberg’s The Post commences in Vietnam in 1966, whereby a typewriter-bearing Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) has come to observe the troops.
The trip to ’Nam shows us the cost of the war, bringing context to The Post’s centerpiece—the New York Times and the Washington Post’s revelation in 1971 of the leaked Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg risked jail to unleash a decades-long secret history of deception, ass-covering and refusal to read the writing on the wall. One can argue the worthiness of the war in Vietnam. What’s inarguable are the thousands of Pentagon documents demonstrating that the public was kept in the dark by the U.S. Department of Defense.
The Post studies the conflict between the gruff editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and the Post’s publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep)—a patrician Washington widow who had the paper as her family business. The relatively small and “barely solvent” Post is about to be taken public on Wall Street. Moreover, Graham is good friends with the people she needs to expose.
Streep can’t make Graham’s personal heartbreak and portfolio problems as interesting as the story of how the news got out, how the Post was scooped by the New York Times on their own turf and how the revelations were almost blocked by President Nixon and the courts.
The invaluable information in the film is covered in more depth in Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s 2010 documentary, titled in honor of Henry Kissinger’s description of Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man in America. It tells of Ellsberg’s decision to leak the documents and how this leak begat Nixon’s counter-intelligence team, who inaugurated the Watergate affair. In 2010, I wrote “A feature film would have handled this ending on a note of triumph: The full story is sadder.” Informed that the war had been conducted under false pretenses, the public didn’t care. They returned Nixon to office in a landslide. Exult at the end of The Post at the press’s triumph over the sinister Nixon.