'The Post' is a fine movie, but 'The Times' would have been a more accurate one

When journalists see “The Post,” which opens in limited release Friday, their natural instinct will be to compare the film with two classics of the newspaper movie genre: “Spotlight” and “All the President’s Men.”

The 2015 Oscar-winner “Spotlight,” of course, is based on the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning expose of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, and the church's coverup of it. The 41-year-old “All the President’s Men,” meanwhile, is a Pulitzer-winner’s story, too — about the Washington Post Watergate reporting that took place in 1972, the year after the events described in the new picture.

In “The Post,” director Steven Spielberg focuses on its coverage of the Pentagon Papers. And he has created a picture with all the drama of both of its how-they-got-the-story predecessors. In channeling the late Post publisher Katharine Graham, Meryl Streep stuns with her portrayal of a '70s-era executive pressed into make-or-break corporate decisions in the face of the patronizing, often unsupportive all-male corporate culture around her. (Preview audiences applauded several Streep scenes that seem ripped from today’s headlines.)

There are plenty of ticking-clock thrills, too. Reporters rush, against the cruelest of deadlines, to reconstruct the stolen Pentagon archive of secret government documents they’ve acquired from leaker Daniel Ellsberg —documents that reveal decades of administration lies about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. And Graham makes one call from her phone, in the face of government threats against the Post, literally as press operators wait for her to say, “Go ahead. Let’s go. Publish.”

And then there’s Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, the late Post executive editor, whose nuanced portrayal of his relationship with Graham is a delight.

In short, if you’re a journalism fan, you have to see this motion picture. But bring your journalist’s sense of skepticism into the theater with you. Afterward, you’ll probably want to do some more research about the Pentagon Papers.

As for me, I can’t remember ever having such a love/hate reaction to a film.

Love, certainly, for Streep’s performance, and the vivid depiction of a critical two-week period in a great news organization’s life, with Graham at the fulcrum. But also for how her courage transformed the Post into the organization we know today. During those weeks, Graham developed her sense of self, and helped create solid corporate and newsroom foundations that, a year later, enabled Bradlee’s team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to break the Watergate scoop of a lifetime.

“This movie means a lot at this time in history,” says Len Downie, who was an assistant city editor at the Post in 1971, eventually rising to become Ben Bradlee’s replacement as executive editor. “First, for focusing on the positive side of the competition between the New York Times and the Washington Post. We became a national and international competitor with the Times at that point. And today they clearly are the two leading newspapers in holding this administration accountable.” Downie, who served as a consultant on “The Post,” says in a telephone interview that he considers it the equal of those other favorite journalism films: “Spotlight” and “All the President’s Men.” (Now an Arizona State University professor, Downie was succeeded in 2008 at the Post first by Marcus Brauchli and in 2012 by Marty Baron, the current Post executive editor, who previously had edited the Globe. Baron’s leadership during the Globe’s Church reporting was depicted in “Spotlight.”)

More than one member of the team who made “The Post” have described it as a love letter to American journalism, arriving just at the right time in history.

So why do I have any negative feelings? Because the overall story of the Pentagon Papers as journalism seems somehow twisted by the Post-centric focus of the movie. At the preview I saw, I spoke to a number of attendees who had no idea that the Times, and not the Post, had won the Public Service Pulitzer Prize for its Pentagon Papers coverage. (The Pulitzer isn’t mentioned in the film.) As the 1972 Pulitzer jury of journalists put it in recommending the New York Times for the prize, the work of reporters Neil Sheehan, Hedrick Smith, Fox Butterfield and E. W. Kenworthy was “a combination of investigative reporting, analysis, research, and writing — all of which added to a distinctly meritorious public service, not only for readers of The Times but also for an entire nation.” The work of the Post, however excellent, wasn’t mentioned. 

But first, let me note some of what I loved about “The Post,” in addition to the acting.

One of its two screenwriters, Josh Singer, also a writer for “Spotlight,” notes in an interview that while the new film’s “three main themes are journalism, feminism and moral leadership,” the movie puts a business focus on the company. “This is the best business-school case I’ve ever seen,” he says, although “Spotlight” serves better as a journalism-school case.

Graham had to deal with the risk to her company from government legal action that could derail an initial public offering of stock the Post was launching. At the time, the Post was “a small paper with big ambitions”—only the second-largest paper in D.C., behind the Washington Star — and Singer points to the special vulnerability it faced in being challenged by the courts, as the Times also was. “Even with ‘All the President’s Men’ and ‘Spotlight,’ you don’t really see the institutional backbone there,” he says, though courage is certainly abundant in their newsrooms.

“The Post” also is terrifically written. The screenplay evolved from a spec script by first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah that she based primarily on Graham’s memoir, “Personal History.” Spielberg, who was smitten with that first script, has said that the screenplay got better when other material was drawn from such sources as “A Good Life,” Bradlee’s autobiography. (That book devotes only 13 pages to the Papers, compared with 80 for Watergate and its aftermath. The editor’s life is more centrally captured in the recent HBO documentary “The Newspaperman”— narrated by Bradlee himself, thanks to his own audiobook narration.)

In addition to the script, as I learned from a New York post-screening question-and-answer period with Singer and Hannah, Streep's ad-libs brightened the film — as when Graham tells a particularly condescending Post company executive: “Thank you, Arthur, for your candor.”

Numerous small Spielberg touches (underscored by the master, John Williams) help move the story along as the small, aspiring Post begins to take on the giant Times, along with the Nixon White House. One such moment, drawn from a line in both the Graham and Bradlee books, has Post editors and reporters passing 10-year-old Marina Bradlee as she sells lemonade outside her parents’ house, where an impromptu meeting about the Pentagon Papers is being held inside. As lemonade money accumulates in the kitchen, there’s the impression that Marina is running a more lucrative enterprise than the cash-poor Post.

One slightly bitter note, for me, was a scene in which Bradlee — having heard rumors about Times star reporter Neil Sheehan preparing a blockbuster — sends a Post intern to New York to find out what Sheehan is up to. In a Times elevator, the intern sees the next day’s front-page mockup with “NEIL” written across an above-the-fold story. The account isn’t in Bradlee’s book, and Downie says he thinks the movie scene was a case of creative license. (One wonders how the real Kay Graham would have reacted to such a ploy.)
 
As for what else in “The Post” turned me off, complaints among current and former New York Times executives and veterans carry weight with me — even though some have purposely stayed away from previews. (Consider for a moment the thinking process behind such a decision, by journalists who normally strive to consider all sides of an issue.)

“I don’t think I will see it, despite entreaties from the film makers,” current Times executive editor Dean Baquet says in an email. “The most courageous decision was made by Arthur Sulzberger (the current Times publisher’s late father, known as Punch) — to publish first and to bet his entire company. It was all he had. Graham deserves credit for much. But Arthur deserves more than the walk-on he gets. And it pains me that a generation won’t ever know the story of a publisher who bet his entire company on the most important journalism decision of an era.”

Baquet says he thinks the filmmakers “were looking for a star turn for Meryl Streep. And Bradlee is such a sexy character. I think drama and commerce trumps history in Hollywood.”

A more visceral reaction comes from retired Times reporter Fox Butterfield, the junior member, with Sheehan, of the four-person reporting team that worked in secret for three months on the 1971 Pentagon Papers story, shaking the nation and angering the Nixon White House. “The Post’s was a second-day story,” says Butterfield in a telephone interview. “The Times alone won the Pulitzer Prize, for the real story,” and should be the centerpiece of any movie about the Papers. “I have no interest in seeing it. I was trained as a historian, and this is terrible history.”

The 81-year-old Sheehan is in ill health, hasn’t seen the film, and isn’t able to comment, says his wife, Susan, a journalist and author, in email exchanges. She notes, though, that two of their daughters, and one grandchild, 10-year-old Nicholas Sheehan Bruno, did attend the premiere last Friday at Washington’s Newseum. Their daughters “enjoyed the film, despite their profound knowledge of its historical inaccuracy.” As for Nicholas, he “liked the film with its many references to Neil,” and got a good laugh from Streep when he told the actress: “My grandfather says it’s an honor to be called an S.O.B. by Richard Nixon.”

Ben Bradlee Jr., who was the Boston Globe’s project editor for the Catholic Church stories, and was portrayed in “Spotlight,” hadn’t seen “The Post” as of last week, although he’s particularly interested in seeing Tom Hanks play his father. But, says  Bradlee in an email, “I will say that I’m very sympathetic to the Times folks’ upset. I mean, they broke the Pentagon Papers story, but the Post gets the movie? It would be a little like giving ‘All the President’s Men’ to the Times.”

Why did the Post, rather than the Pulitzer-winning Times, become the focus of a movie? “I’m guessing Spielberg thought that telling the tale of Katharine Graham’s professional coming of age, with Ben Sr. as her wingman, was a more compelling way to tell the Pentagon Papers story,” he says. “But in doing so, it does feel like the Times got screwed.”

He adds: “As for 'The Post' versus 'Spotlight,' the former takes place almost entirely at the publishing and editing level, whereas 'Spotlight' is primarily a reporters’ procedural about how a team of reporters cracked a big story and held a hallowed institution to account. It’s hard to beat that, I think, because in my mind it’s always the reporters who deserve the credit.”

Singer, who describes himself as “a dramatist, not a historian,” says he’s not sure that a movie about Times reporters working behind closed doors would be as thrilling for audiences as the Post’s story, featuring Graham and the senior Bradlee. And when they’re played by Streep and Hanks, “I think this is a movie that has the potential to capture hearts and minds across the nation,” he says. As celebrated as the Oscar-winning “Spotlight” was, its box-office draw wasn’t among the year’s leaders. “If you want a movie that plays in Kansas,” Singer says, “you need movie stars like Meryl and Tom.”
 
In an interview Tom Hanks did at the Newseum premiere with current Post editor Baron, the Post editor asked the actor what he thought of the controversy with the Times, “which has been kind of apoplectic about the idea that this movie about the Pentagon Papers has focused on the Washington Post ….”

Answered Hanks, “Well, they didn’t have Katharine Graham, in all honesty. If they had a Katharine Graham we’d be calling it ‘The New York Times.’ We’d be here, and you guys would be pissed off.”
Replied Baron, “At the moment we have no complaints.”

Hanks believes the new movie gives the Times “all the credit and credence” it deserves. “We are playing catch-up to the New York Times, the Neil Sheehan piece,” he said. “It’s a main story point of what we’re doing.” But Graham’s emergence at the Post is what “jacks this movie out of being a movie about how a certain story is covered,” Hanks said. “You could just call this movie ‘Katharine’ and it would be just as accurate about what’s going down as if you called it ‘The Pentagon Papers’ or ‘The Post.’"

One suspects that the New York Times would have had “no complaints” about such a title change.

Watch the trailer:

Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly made it sound like Marty Baron directly succeeded Len Downie when, in fact, Marcus Brauchli was Downie's direct successor. This has been clarified.

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