Review: ‘The Post’ is all too relevant

Ysabela Golden

Before “The Post” came to theaters on Friday, Jan. 12, Meryl Streep gave a speech at the 2017 Committee to Protect Journalists where she said that “there has never been a more exciting, exhausting and dangerous time to be an investigative journalist than now.” A concerning statement, considering the content of the movie she would star in not long afterward: Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” documents the background of “New York Times Co. v. United States,” a supreme court case that pitted two newspapers against the entire U.S. government. Is that really less exciting, exhausting and dangerous than the current state of journalistic affairs? Or, to put it differently, have we really entered the most perilous times the free press has experienced in U.S. history?

That seems to be the question “The Post” is intending to raise. Spielberg, the movie’s director, scrapped another project entirely in order to put the film out as close as possible to the events that inspired its conception, and in one CBS interview, Streep’s co-star Tom Hanks expressed that they went into the project knowing the final product was supposed to feel “ripped right from today’s headlines.” 

The headline the plot was actually ripped from, however, was The Washington Post’s 1971 publication of the “Pentagon Papers,” a top-secret government study of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. The report detailed, among other unflattering truths, how every presidential administration since the end of WWII had lied to the American public about Vietnam and, even worse, that military leaders had suspected for years that the war was unwinnable but continued to send American soldiers to their deaths anyway to avoid the humiliation of surrender. 

It was a disillusioned strategic analyst working for the Department of Defense, Daniel Ellsberg, who took matters into his own hands and leaked a photocopied report to the press. The New York Times attempted to publish the information Ellsberg uncovered, only to be slapped with a restraining order by the U.S. Department of Justice for “threatening national security.” It’s here that the movie focuses on The Post publisher Katharine Graham and Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, who decided to defy the Nixon administration and risk prison time by ignoring the court order and releasing the information to the American public. 

The parallel to events today becomes pretty clear as the film progresses. The ending, which uses an actual recording of Nixon forbidding The Post reporters from entrance in the White House, feels especially unsettling to a modern audience. Which other president do we know who has proven very selective in which news publications he wants covering White House affairs? It doesn’t help that President Donald Trump’s 2017 agenda and frequent description of himself as “the law and order candidate” bear remarkable similarity to Nixon’s 1968 campaign message of “law and order,” which got him elected on the promise that he would return our nation to “traditional American values.” Ever since 1968, the racial coding of such a campaign being run in the wake of the civil rights movement has been debated, which is also not unlike the continuous controversy over the racism of the Trump administration.

Whether or not times are really more dire for the free press now than they were in 1971 is up for audience interpretation. But the many issues raised by “The Post”—how much of our trust does our government really deserve, at what point does attacking and undermining your government become treason, can we even have a democracy if the voting public is kept in the dark about the actions of its elected leaders—are immediately relevant to our country’s modern political landscape, no matter how you feel about the issue of loss of trust in American news media we’re experiencing today.