Last year’s brilliant ten part documentary The Vietnam War, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, conveyed just how close the U.S. came to tearing itself apart over its efforts to defend a country on the other side of the world. One particularly significant crisis point arose in 1971, when the dubious reasons for which the war was being fought, and the decades of lies that politicians had used to perpetuate it, burst into the open.
What have since been termed The Pentagon Papers was an official report, commissioned by Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara in the late ’60s, on the objectives, actions, and failures of America’s involvement in Vietnam. When Daniel Ellsberg leaked these papers to the press, he caused a constitutional firestorm, the crossfires of which Steven Spielberg has given his characteristic historical treatment to in The Post.
The parallels that The Post evokes between American politics then and now are too obvious to need elucidating; in fact, the film’s marketing has repeatedly emphasised them. Before we rush to crown the director of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull as the saviour of the post-truth age, though, it behoves us to ask – what kind of interpretation is Spielberg putting on to these momentous events?
For one, The Post generally shunts Ellsberg from proceedings in order to focus on the steely resolve of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and to applaud newspaper publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) as a quasi-feminist figurehead. By looking at the messengers rather than the leaker, The Post swerves around the issue of how and if to betray one’s country, a crime for which Edward Snowden is still seeking asylum.
As with Lincoln and Bridge of Spies before it, The Post is the kind of earnest prestige fare that Spielberg makes in between his more lucrative theme park rides. Hanks and Streep are indeed the closest things we have to old Hollywood venerability, and as a paean to a job that is itself becoming increasingly obsolete – journalism – The Post seems content to indulge fantasies of yesteryear, when intrepid individuals could mend broken institutions.
But the news today isn’t a sign that the U.S. has taken the wrong path, but rather a confirmation that it is on the same apocalyptic road it has always driven down. If Spielberg is our paramount liberal humanist, then he may also be the only one left, still set on reminding everybody that things aren’t that bad.
Despite how good The Post is, or indeed how many Oscars it will no doubt win, we may have to look elsewhere for a rallying cry for the future.