With Donald Trump declaring war on the media like no president ever before — 167 tweets to date about “fake news” — it’s touching that Steven Spielberg sought to defend the so-called Fourth Estate with this heroic thriller about The Washington Post, The New York Times, and publisher/owner Katherine Graham in particular. Unfortunately for the media to be saved, Spielberg proves genetically incapable of not overplaying his cards. What could have been a gripping movie about the role of the press in keeping the government accountable instead left me wishing for a good documentary about what actually happened back in 1971 with the release of the Pentagon Papers.
For those tuning in 36 years after the fact, the Pentagon Papers refers to a top-secret study commissioned by the Department of Defense to explore the United States’ military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Spoiler alert: The study revealed presidents from Truman to Johnson lied through their teeth to the American people about a war they increasingly understood to be unwinnable. When the The New York Times broke the story, the Nixon White House got a gag order to shut it up. When the same documents mysteriously showed up at the door of The Washington Post, Post Graham (powerfully played by Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (played not so perfectly by Tom Hanks) struggled what to do next: Publish or perish. Only in hindsight is the “right” answer obvious. The actual debate was anything but.
Had Spielberg not depicted the winners so unfailingly heroic and the losers so craven and venal, it would have been a better movie and a better civics lesson, too. John Williams ever epic soundtrack leaves no hint of doubt when the audience should experience an upwelling of emotion. Excuse me for quibbling, but was it really necessary to put the words of Mario Savio’s famous “free speech” speech, delivered in Berkeley in 1964 — about throwing one’s body on the gears of the machine — into the mouth of an anti-war demonstrator in a rally taking place in Washington, D.C., in 1971? A small detail, but you get the point. That said, Spielberg knows how to tell a story and in this case, the story is so interesting that not even he can ruin it. The even better news is that The Washington Postand The New York Times have wound up doing some of their finest work in decades covering the Trump White House. Maybe they can save themselves without assistance from Mr. Spielberg.