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Monday, January 29, 2018


This rousing, Oscar-nominated film on the publication of the Pentagon Papers underlines the importance of a free press. (Review by Patrick Compton - 8/10)

The press, as we know, has been under heavy attack in the United States with its rogue President routinely describing the truth as “fake news”. It’s no wonder, then, that Steven Spielberg’s impeccably liberal new movie about the decision of the Washington Post’s owner, Katharine Graham, to publish the Pentagon Papers feels particularly timeous.

Hopefully, this cinematic tribute to a free press won’t end here. If there is much to appreciate in The Post, many South Africans will harbour even more intense emotions about the proud role of our local media and brave whistleblowers relating to state capture and the shady manoeuvrings of the criminal Gupta family. What odds on a movie to commemorate what is currently unravelling in our country?

In 1971, former Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaks a massive archive of government classified material disclosing that successive US administrations have been lying about the Vietnam War. We learn that they have long since known that the war was unwinnable, but kept on sending troops anyway. The war went on, it is suggested, not because of the dangers of communist incursion, but simple US hubris that couldn’t countenance military defeat.

Ironically, it was the New York Times that initially broke the story but it was then indicted from publishing any further material. The Washington Post – then regarded as the lesser newspaper – was given access to the same files and was then faced with the dilemma of whether to publish further stories illegally.

The principals in this handsomely mounted period drama as conceived by Spielberg and first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah are Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as editor Bill Bradlee. Both give robustly excellent performances. The film explores their relationship in interesting ways, not only focusing on the natural tensions that exist between owner and editor, but also the dangers of newspaper people getting too close to politicians.

Of the two roles, Streep’s is perhaps the more dramatically interesting as she portrays a woman who is thrown unexpectedly into the role of proprietor after her husband’s untimely death. Surrounded by men who see her as little more than a society hostess, Graham has to find her inner steel and conviction as male boardroom fainthearts implore her not to risk her newspaper’s future by publishing the incriminating documents.

This proto-feminist angle is then underlined in a striking scene – perhaps more symbolic than real – when Graham emerges from the Supreme Court after the release of the judgment. As she descends the steps, her progress is silently followed by a wide-eyed phalanx of admiring young female protesters. There are some other typically Spielbergian melodramatic flourishes, particularly Graham’s big moment when she makes her decision about whether to publish, surrounded by a room full of disapproving men.

The movie’s only disappointment is that the heroic role played by Ellsberg has to be relatively downplayed. His decision to leak the documents was not only a landmark moment for the American media, but also that of whistleblowing as Watergate followed quickly on its heels, to be followed, in recent times, by the revelations of Edward Snowden. Now 86 years of age, Ellsberg is still campaigning for government transparency. Commenting recently on the significance of the Pentagon Papers and Snowden, he said: “Secrecy corrupts, just as power corrupts.” Perhaps he can have a movie all to himself.

Aside from the movie's moral dimensions, veteran journalists will love the period detail that goes back to the days of hot metal type, typewriters and pay phones.

The Post, which opened on January 26, is showing at the Gateway, Suncoast, Watercrest and Midlands malls. – Patrick Compton