Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Steven Spielberg
Cinematographer: Janusz Kamiński
Producer: Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger, and Amy Pascal
by Jon Cvack
The documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Danielle Esberg and the Pentagon Papers had gained an Oscar Nomination back in 2009, making a big splash, offering prescient insight into a similar scandal that would again erupt a year later with Chelsea Manning’s intelligence dump to Wikileaks. Like Ellsberg’s leak, Manning's demonstrated how numerous drone strikes wengaging with the enemy took down innocent Iraqi civilians with some of the military operators laughing callously. This was in addition to over 750,00 documentaries about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, known as the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs, demonstrating that the United States failed to report hundreds of cases of rape, torture, and abuse, along with a huge underestimation on the amount of civilian casualties. I recall it being a big deal when it happened, yet with Obama in office and his winding down of the war, and with his popularity still high, little was made of the revelations, even though they - from what I remembered - corroborated what we'd been long hearing about the war from the previous six years or so.
It makes me wonder what the overall general reaction was to the Ellsberg leak at the time. The country had just gone through a terrible last few years, including a violent battle for civil rights along with the assassination of JFK, Robert Kennedy, MLK, Malcolm X, and Fred Hampton. I wonder if it was similar to our current period, with each week functioning like a reality show/soap opera, in which I find myself anxious for what’s about to happen next, certain that it couldn’t possibly get any worse. It drowns otherwise huge scandals - everything from the Stormy Daniels payoff to Scott Pruitt’s overhauling of the EPA, or that most major government agency positions remain empty and what that means for National Security.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Martine veteran Daniel Ellsberg was working at the private Rand Corporation security firm where researches wrote mountains of reports on the state of the Vietnam War, relying on hard data as ordered by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. It demonstrated that - in grossly simplistic terms - each president since John F. Kennedy to LBJ and then Nixon had known that the war couldn't be won, all while continuing to escalate troop strength, drafting nearly 650,000 young men, and claiming 58,220 lives. Each year I age this becomes all the more terrifying and infuriating. To think the average age was 19 years old truly paints my heart to consider, claiming lives which had only their foot in adulthood, forced to grow up with death all around them. I wish such a view didn’t remain a left/right issue, but as my uncle and Vietnam Marine veteran said when asked about Ken Burns’ movie and the horrors it presented, it's all liberal revisionism. I understand the sentiment. His unit was hit particularly hard, with two books written by John J. Culbertson about his platoon - "A Sniper in Arizona" and "Operation Tuscaloosa"; both offering terrifying accounts. To have to accept it was all for nothing seems like a difficult pill to swallow for those who gave so much.
Ellsberg leaked the intelligence documents to the New York Times who was instructed by the Nixon administration to cease from publishing any further stories, allegedly it infringed on their first amendment rights. The Washington Post then received the same intelligence documents, creating another legal battle against the United States government.
I had just finished the documentary Spielberg (2017) a few days prior, which highlighted how resistant critics were to regarding him as an artist due to the first decade of his career dominated by wildly successful and popular films. It was with The Color Purple (1985) that he showed off his “artistic” craft, though remained accused of sentimentalizing the source material. I find the whole debate absurd, as Jaws (1975) alone contains more insight and higher craft than most Best Picture nominees. The purpose of cinema is to transport you, and whether you're left feeling excited, bummed it's over, or an urge to talk about the ideas explored (ideally all three) films that provide any individual trait have accomplished what the art form demands.
I wasn’t necessarily excited to see The Post, as I felt The Pentagon Papers had been discussed ad nauseum since the documentary's release, even being adapted into a narrative back in 2003 with James Spader (I don’t believe I’ve seen this, though it sounds familiar). I was picturing a story that would focus on the man and his trial, rehashing what has been told countless times before. I should have assumed the title indicated otherwise.
The story focuses primarily on two individuals - Washington Post owner Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) as one of the few women newspaper owners in the world, who fell into the position after her husband died. Her editor in chief is the renegade and former government employee Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) who wants to get the paper away from covering Nixon’s daughter’s wedding and other social gossip, and into revealing the truth behind the Vietnam war.
Katharine Graham is days away from taking her company public, requiring one final meeting with the bank and board of directors in order to secure the deal. She’s introduced rehearsing her speech to her lawyer and friend Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts) who gives her a few tips. Later at the meeting we see that Katherine is the one woman amongst at least a dozen and a half white men who wish to talk business; ideas that she hadn’t yet learned or considered before her husband’s death. When it’s her turn to speak, she freezes up and Fritz immediately cuts in. It’s here that the Spielberg touch shines, as we see an otherwise charming man who simply wants to help his friend.
We then move onto the newsroom where I think I had some of the most fun at the movies in a long while. Spielberg and Kaminski shine as they move the camera around, shot in Panavision 70mm which transports us back in time. The film reminded me of the The Master(2012), as though Spielberg had much admired what PTA achieved and decided to turn the same style to a more specific and energetic environment.
It’s here that I would point to Spielberg’s uncanny ability to block scenes as he follows characters up and down the newsroom, entering and exiting doors, adding an additional punch to the snappy dialogue which has characters talking over one another. Every frame is deliberate and maximizing information, framing characters perfectly so that even the smallest line uttered pulls your eye to someone you might have been lost in the extensive frame.
In one shot, a package is delivered to a portly and timid reporter who looks inside, discovering something big. The camera follows him from his desk and into Ben’s office who’s having a meeting and waves him off, causing him to go to the Deputy Editor in Chief, who looks at the package and then leads the reporter into Ben’s office, where there are now five characters all perfectly balanced in frame, with the reporter explaining what happened while Ben and the others - including David Cross who fades away into his greatest role as reporter Howard Simons - all talking over one another, while Ben creates a plan of attack. It’s difficult to pull off deliberate steadicam shots that feel completely necessary. Spielberg has other long takes, but it was though he was saving the technique for when live time was required, and chaos demanded our eyes drift between the characters as though we were the intern in the room, listening. In another scene at Ben’s house, and in a much faster one take, we follow the characters as they walk in and out of the doors, talking to the lawyers in one room, sorting out the papers in another, all while Ben tries to manage the entire situation. It all achieved perhaps one of the greatest tests of great cinema: having to go the bathroom and holding it for a quieter moment, but the film is so great that you don't want to get up until you just can’t take it anymore. As crass as it might sound, consider how it incredible it is to respond to a movie like this; in which you’re willing to remain uncomfortable to see just another few images, as they’re simply that engaging.
BELOW: Ellsberg on leaking in an age of Trump
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