‘Stop watching the news” is the savvy advice Morrissey sings on his politically oriented, recently released album. He then explains: “Because the news contrives to frighten you / To make you feel small and alone / To make you feel that your mind isn’t your own.” This provocative assessment of contemporary journalism felt positively restorative after watching the deceitful glorification of “the news” in Steven Spielberg’s The Post.
Morrissey’s complaint cuts through to the truth about modern journalism — as Spielberg does not — by exposing how what we consider “the news” has become the illusory practice of a primarily Left-centered, conspiratorial institution that operates to manipulate a susceptible public. In other words, Morrissey knows that journalism has become corrupt, whereas Spielberg’s movie normalizes that corruption. The Post is a fawning account of Washington Post publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) crying “Me, too” when the New York Times scoops them with the precedent-setting publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
Spielberg looks to that turning-point event because the past is the source from which today’s leftist sanctimony — and particularly the media’s maddening “resistance” posture — claims its validity. All of today’s social-justice movements — Black Lives Matter, fourth-wave feminism, the transgender-equality brigades — derive their sentimental impetus from the memories of halcyon protest and counterculture dissent that transformed America.
The Post is a snootily white-collar movie faking common-man virtues. Spielberg directs it as an addendum to All the President’s Men (1976), the most narcissistic of all newspaper films. Not only did it alter popular consciousness about the media — fabricating a holy war, between journalism and government, that ceased only for deference toward the Obama administration — but it had an overall destructive effect on American civic ambition. That film’s false modesty (enacted by former culture heroes Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) romanticized the hubris, of taking down a presidency, that infected subsequent generations of communications students and ambitious reporters. Through that film’s convoluted, pretend-mystery plot, journalism wannabes regarded their own political partisanship as qualifications for the job; white-knight vanity replaced the self-effacing detective work of the old-time crime beat. Ever since that tedious movie, the news media have magnified their own mythology and sense of power.
Now, using his own dark-tinted “realism” (as in Lincoln and Bridge of Spies), Spielberg counters the lavishness — of the dichotomy between justice and corruption, and of the contrast between the glowing and the chiaroscuro — that cinematographer Gordon Willis gave to All the President’s Men. Black-and-white photography might have implied documentary investigation, but media mogul Spielberg wants dramatic persuasion; he, too, has fallen for the media’s sanctimony and so makes a 21st-century version of John Ford’s maxim on history: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Yet, The Post is irony-free.
The legend offered here is motivated by the resolve of the national media industry to countermand the 2016 election, first by going back to establish the Washington Post’s bona fides when it followed the New York Times’ publication of the Pentagon Papers. This is where Spielberg and screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer automatically accept that publishing the Defense Department’s classified government documents was a journalistic prerogative. To question that decision is now considered anathema. The Post validates the slippery slope that brought us to today’s shameless media partisanship.
Daniel Ellsberg, the Rand Corporation wonk who appropriated the documents and released them to the Times, is portrayed (by Matthew Rhys) as a minor character whose trendy anti-establishment crime (47 classified volumes sneaked out over two months) is merely the film’s pretext. Ellsberg’s backstory, like Spielberg’s cleverest gambit (a blue-shaded montage of presidential prevaricating on Vietnam through four administrations), leads up to the film’s real subject: the gallantry of the media class.
The Post is a snootily white-collar movie faking common-man virtues.
Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee are aristos. They spend little screen time discussing the ethics of “whistle-blowing” or connecting it to their own homes or corporation (where disloyalty would hardly be tolerated). But they do compete and collude with the Times, and, being media lords, their opposition to the Vietnam war is not just journalism but noblesse oblige. Because the purloined documents proved that the government had lost confidence about the war, publishing them, against pressure from Nixon’s White House, becomes justification for any unethical, self-serving action. (“What will happen to the reputation of this paper if we sit on this?”)
The way Spielberg films Hanks and Streep in heroic profiles, their faces full of virtuous strain — tough-guy pride and rich-lady timorousness — isn’t really about freedom of the press; it’s a Mount Rushmore of Hollywood and Beltway liberal alliance. (Film-history note: The clash between Streep and Tom Cruise as Iraq War–era journalist and politician in Lions for Lambs offered deeper philosophical debate than anything here.) No underlings contradict Graham and Bradlee; the film depicts a media class united with D.C. social elites, power brokers who all think alike (thereby implying that the public should think as media instruct them).
These white-collar folk are shocked at what the Papers reveal (“This has never happened before! Not in the history of the Republic!”). But their shock never leads to self-reflection about their duty as citizens. The turn from being professionals to being activists relieves them of patriotic responsibility. Compare them to the characters in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, living out the difficult moral quandaries facing conscientious objectors. The Post’s mash-up of conscience and egotism simply idolizes Graham and Bradlee as they incorporate sedition into the function of journalism. It’s possible to think that the profession, and American optimism, died at that moment.
Alert viewers should see through Spielberg’s admiring perspective and recognize it for what it is: a class crisis. He unwittingly shows the haughtiness of bourgeois journalists who feel superior to their readership and to the subjects they cover. Spielberg valorizes this arrogance but without examining the privilege so apparent in the recent move toward editorializing commentary in news stories that should be strictly factual.
Spielberg unwittingly shows the haughtiness of bourgeois journalists who feel superior to their readership and to the subjects they cover.
The Post presents journalists as our saviors whose authority is guaranteed solely by their social position: Kay Graham’s money and Ben Bradlee’s editorial fiat. Neither icon’s judgment is challenged. Spielberg simply looks back in awe. (Interestingly, they have the same spiritual lack as Spielberg’s Lincoln does.) Their naïve disillusionment about dishonest politicos (Bruce Greenwood plays a contrite Robert McNamara) is Spielberg’s ruse, attempting to domesticate D.C.’s elite — Bradlee’s daughter’s lemonade stand and his speechifying wife’s (Sarah Paulson) turkey sandwiches nourish the journos as they work overtime. This casual class snobbery is the film’s worst defect — an object lesson in the ever-widening divide between the ideological dictates of mainstream media (which Morrissey sings as “mean-stream”) and the actual lives and best interests of the popular audience. Spielberg, once our great suburban auteur, squanders the potential of such a narrative. Have his private dinners with Obama corrupted his vision?
Here is some of the most dishonest filmmaking of Spielberg’s career: There are strategically placed blacks and women in nearly every scene (though not on the Post’s editorial board — shades of Spotlight). The storyline seems slapdash, TV-movieish but without the urgency of a revelation that needed to be rushed to the screen in order to capture an important political moment. Spielberg never had Larry Cohen’s B-movie, tabloid genius, and he’s lost the feel for the zeitgeist that Morrissey has rediscovered. Instead, the film swings into feminist groveling. Streep is at her most obnoxiously “unassuming” when the Supreme Court sanctions the Post’s defiance of President Nixon’s effort to obstruct the paper’s publication. It’s cringe-inducing to watch Streep maneuver down the steps of the Supreme Court into radiant sunlight while throngs of women beam at her as if she were Hillary Clinton incarnate.
The Post then shifts from hagiographic mode to pandering. A Post reporter reads Justice Hugo Black’s own fawning opinion on the Court’s decision: “The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” Black’s hoary, big–little binary has occasioned Spielberg’s least credible fantasy, which brings us back to Morrissey’s great warning: This film’s salute to the foundations of “mean-stream” journalism is designed to make you worship Hollywood, the Beltway, and media elites; to make you think they care about you. Spielberg ignores that journalism works in a totally opposite way now in its constant, brazen, unscrupulous efforts to govern people’s thoughts and votes.
Spielberg’s wishful craft can’t disguise this hoax. Ending the movie with trite suspense, modeled after a Marvel Comics post-credit sequence cliffhanger, he fixates on a leftist fantasy that the Watergate scandal — and the self-righteous vigilantism it unleashed — symbolizes America’s political destiny. The Post’s cynicism is unworthy — and worthless.