Steven Spielberg's The Post is a must-watch in these dark times for journalism

Anshu Lal

Jan,13 2018 11:11:36 IST

Fun fact: The slogan of The Washington Post under its online masthead is ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’.

One of the toughest aspects of being a journalist is that even if one writes the perfect article or broadcasts a brilliant video news report, some people or organisations are going to be angered, or disappointed.

As a journalist, it is impossible to make everyone happy, especially in this digital age where each and every person has the opportunity to voice his or her opinion.

And if the angry or disappointed party just happens to be the government, the journalist’s worst nightmares come to life and he or she is faced with a very tough choice.

It is this tough choice that is the crux of Steven Spielberg’s The Post. The movie, starring some of the most talented actors of contemporary times like Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson and Jesse Plemons, is based on the true story of journalists from The Washington Post who published the infamous Pentagon Papers — classified documents with decades’ worth of information about the Vietnam War which showed that the United States government kept sending American soldiers to the frontlines despite knowing as early as 1965 that the war was unwinnable.

Image courtesy: @ThePostOfficial/Facebook

Image courtesy: @ThePostOfficial/Facebook

The most significant parts of Spielberg’s brilliant and emotional political drama depict how journalists at The Washington Post handled the extremely tricky dilemma of whether they should publish the contents of the Pentagon Papers, especially since the then Nixon administration took strict action against The New York Times for publishing a small part of the top secret documents.

The final decision ultimately rests in the hands of Katherine Graham (Streep), The Washington Post’s first female publisher. The decision becomes all the more difficult for Graham because she heads a failing newspaper (at that time) and is trying to expand the newsroom by preparing to take the paper public. The decision also has to be taken during a short window when the initial public offering of The Washington Post can be rolled back.

But perhaps the biggest challenge Graham faces is constantly being snubbed by her male peers in an industry which was dominated by men at that time.

Streep’s legendary status as an actor is established when viewers see her perfectly balance the portrayal of her character’s strong leadership abilities with that of her vulnerable side, which makes her unsure of herself (she often come across as a slightly goofy person, who nearly falls over a chair in one scene).

In another poignant scene, Graham also admits to her daughter how the constant nagging by the men around her falsely convinces her that she’s not good enough. Liz Hannah and Josh Singer deserve praise here for excellent writing. Graham reveals that when her father chose her husband as the head of The Post instead of her, it almost felt like a natural choice.

These are the gigantic obstacles which Graham has to face. On the other hand, Hanks plays executive editor Ben Bradlee, who is the ultimate idealist. Bradlee’s position in the movie never changes: He wants to publish the story.

Hanks’ character has the strong sense of idealism which so many of us journalists will identify with. Most people who join journalism begin their journey with the same strong sense of idealism and an intense desire to tell honest and brave stories which will change the world.

Image courtesy: @ThePostOfficial/Facebook

Image courtesy: @ThePostOfficial/Facebook

But, like in every other field, that sense of idealism is often slowly chipped away when one sees and experiences the ground realities of journalism. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

Too much idealism tends to make one a bit naïve. A sense of realism makes one realise that a journalist will have to publish or broadcast stories which may hurt his or her idealism but gets the news organisation eyeballs, which ultimately translates to revenue.

Similarly, most journalists have to come to terms with the fact that any major news organisation will share some kind of relationship with the government, particularly because the government is the source of majority of news stories.

And when that relationship sours, every journalist faces the tough choice:

Should one carry on with courageous idealism and face the hard consequences or accept the reality of the situation and avoid disaster?

It’s very easy to point out that the right answer is carrying on with courageous idealism. But deep down, everyone knows that choosing that path is not only tough but invites unnecessary hassle.

It is because Graham is aware of this fact in The Post that she appears to be more mature than Bradlee, who is just hell-bent on publishing the story and has not faced the kind of ridiculous obstacles staring Graham in the face.

This crucial distinction between the two major characters becomes clear when in one scene, Graham reminds Bradlee that even he had to ignore his ideals when he built a personal relationship with John F Kennedy. Graham tells him he would not have built this precious relationship if he “didn’t pull a few punches”.

“'The Post’ is an uneasy, if ultimately optimistic, exploration of the entanglements among journalists, politicians and policymakers in Washington, and of the conflicts between the financial and moral imperatives of the newspaper business,” says this article in none other than The Washington Post.

The good news, though, is that in The Post, idealism ultimately wins. Graham, despite facing massive pressure and misogyny, takes a decision which ultimately changed the course of history.

Had The Post not been based on a true story, it would have seemed like some escapist fairytale, because we truly live in dark times.

US president Donald Trump just called some nations ‘sh**hole countries’. Back home in India, journalists are facing action for reporting on alleged corruption by the son of the ruling party president or writing on the vulnerability of Aadhaar data.

Out of the 65 journalists who were killed worldwide in 2017, five were killed in India.

This means that India, along with Philippines, was the most dangerous country for journalists in Asia in 2017.

Many people will say that idealism is dead today. But maybe that’s exactly why we need films like The Post.

Updated Date: Jan 13, 2018 12:44 PM