A timely movie about truth comes to our theaters
Truth! Justice! And the American way!
Perhaps you recognize those words, you baby boomers out there. That’s the opening for the “Superman” TV series of the 1950s. Oh, that Superman was onto something.
A half-century later, truth is under siege. We are saddled with a president who regularly distorts the truth while attacking the news media, mocking reporters, claiming that newspapers and CNN are full of “fake news.”
But now, we have a timely response to President Trump and his administration and Congressional backers: a new movie, “The Post,” arrived recently at a theater near you.
“The Post” is a historical but entertaining and inspiring account of the brave decision by Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham in 1971 to publish the Pentagon Papers. Those top-secret documents detailed how the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations had lied to the public about the Vietnam War and the chances our troops could win. The Post and New York Times were allowed to continue to publish this material after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Nixon’s attempt to stop the presses.
Graham, Post editor Ben Bradlee and their counterparts at the Times weren’t the only heroes.
Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, was the man who leaked the documents to reporters at the two newspapers.
Early last year, when director Steven Spielberg saw and heard what was unfolding in the new Trump White House, he seized the script for this film about uncovering government lies and he ran with it.
Accelerating the usual production schedule, Spielberg called up Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and immediately enlisted them to play the parts of Graham and Bradlee.
The two actors shared Spielberg’s realization that time was of the essence.
Here’s a Spielberg quote in the Los Angeles Times: “I thought this was an idea that felt more like 2017 than 1971.
I could not believe the similarities between today and what happened with the Nixon administration against their avowed enemies the New York Times and the Washington Post. I realized this was the only year to make this film.”
Spielberg also said: “I certainly hope that our movie makes people aware of the kind of effort that goes into searching for and seeking the truth.
This to me is a patriotic movie. I made this as a believer in the free press, in our First Amendment rights.”
I was reading the Los Angeles Times because my wife and I were there last month to visit our daughters.
They weren’t around in the 1970s and thus don’t share our memories of that triumphant outcome. But they wanted to see “The Post,” too, so the four of us watched it at a Los Angeles movie theater on Christmas Day.
(The big cities often get prominent movies before the rest of the country.)
Yes, it was inspiring, a reminder to those of us who have remained in the newspaper business, amid all its changes and cutbacks, about why we keep on.
“The Post” is also inspiring to all Americans who value the truth and the free press.
You can’t help but be moved when seeing those rows of newspapers coming off the presses, loaded onto delivery trucks and thrown in stacks out to the newsstands, bringing the truth to the public.
When New York Times writer Cara Buckley interviewed Streep and Hanks, she asked them about “echoes of Nixon in what we’re hearing now from the White House about news reporting being ‘fake news.’”
Hanks replied we are now facing “this guerrilla war that is going on against the First Amendment. This idea now that has actually been verbalized by various people high up in the current administration that there is such a thing as an ‘alternative fact.’”
Hanks added: “Eventually, I think the truth does come out.”
Yes, and it all began with Ellsberg, who has prominent scenes early in the movie (he is played by Matthew Rhys of the TV series “The Americans”) but unfortunately is not seen much in the film’s dramatic second half.
Ellsberg, like New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Graham and Bradlee, knew he could have been arrested and convicted of crimes against the government and sent to prison. Indeed, Ellsberg was prosecuted under the Espionage Act and faced the possibility of a 115-year sentence.
But the case ended in a mistrial because the government had illegally gathered evidence against him.
In June 1981, when Ellsberg came to Yale to speak at a student conference, I covered it for the New Haven Register and spent some time talking with him in a student dining hall.
Ellsberg told me that when he was a U.S. Marine in the mid-1950s and later while working for the RAND Corp., “I was very much a cold warrior, a hawk.”
But as “The Post” shows, Ellsberg’s trip to Vietnam in the early ’70s and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s lies to the public about how it was going for our troops spurred Ellsberg to copy the Pentagon Papers and release them to Times and Post reporters.
As we sat in that Yale dining hall, Ellsberg made a simple statement about his brave decision:
“It seemed the right thing to do.”
Ellsberg also said something that day which rings true in 2017: “I’m struck by the fact that people get to be president who suffer from the same inadequate, fatuous understanding of the world that I had at age 31.”
I encourage you to go see this movie.