Steven Spielberg's homage to The Washington Post is a fine movie, but not history

Steven Spielberg didn't seek any counsel from Neil Sheehan about the newspaper stories central to "The Post," Spielberg's new drama about the Pentagon Papers that stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. And, at least as of a few days ago, nobody had sent Sheehan a DVD or a link.

Indeed, he hadn't really known much about the film that premieres in limited release Dec. 22 until I passed along post-screening word to his wife, the journalist Susan Sheehan, that Hanks' character, the late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, verges on obsessed with Sheehan in the movie.

Indeed. It's 1971 and Hanks' Bradlee hasn't seen the byline of Sheehan, one of his generation's finest journalists, who gained fame covering the Vietnam War, first for United Press International and then The Times. It's been months, Bradlee frets in the movie. Sheehan, who is not portrayed, must be up to something. And it must be big.

Oh, yes, very big. It turns out he was working on the 7,000 pages leaked to him by Daniel Ellsberg on the secret history of the war commissioned by former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. The blockbuster story arrived on June 13, 1971. (The New York Times has an excellent interactive of the complete set of the Pentagon Papers.)

"The Post" is a Hollywood film, not a documentary, but that doesn't lessen the deep and understandable chagrin of current and former New York Times personnel. One of the great movie directors ever sanctifies the admirable Bradlee and the nervy Katharine Graham (Streep), The Post's publisher, and will surely will leave moviegoers with the sense that The Post was the hero of the Pentagon Papers saga.


It's perhaps an inevitable function of deciding to exploit the greater theatrical appeal of The Post as a cinema saga. But, as historians and documentarians such as Ken Burns know, the Spielberg version is not close to being true as far as who deserves the real credit. Burns' "Vietnam" series on PBS gets that history correct, with Sheehan serving as an important and recurring on-camera analyst. That slice  of the Vietnam debacle starts with Ellsberg, who helped on the McNamara history, concluding that the American public might change its pro-war views if it knew the real odyssey of deceit by four administrations about the conflict.

He failed to get any of three anti-war U.S. senators to bite, but Sheehan, who had reported on the war since 1962 and felt that too many were being killed for no good reason, vowed he would get it published. It was an admirable feat of reporting and analysis and, if studied, like Sheehan's full career, could be inspiring to a younger generation of journalists and other citizens.

The initial two Times stories prompted a government attempt to stop further publication and went quickly to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Nixon administration lost an historic 6-3 decision over national security. It was a precursor to Nixon's failed retaliation, the Watergate break-in, as well as the Post's legendary reporting on the scandal and, finally, Nixon's resignation and the exacerbation to this day of mistrust in government.

But, as Burns' documentary parenthetically mentions in recounting The Times' Sheehan-crafted disclosure of the Pentagon Papers, "The Boston Globe and Washington Post also published excerpts." 

That's the only mention of The Post's involvement in the PBS documentary, though that reality doesn't diminish the internal drama at The Post. It included Graham's coincidental and high-stakes plans to take the company public. That made the inherent agonizing over whether to publish those excerpts, and Nixon administration threats to the papers, all the more significant. 

Graham and Bradlee were great and very divergent characters, and the paper's ultimate rise from solid local paper to a great national one must be traced to them. As for the film, at least one amateur movie critic can imagine that awards will come for Streep, since she knocks out of the park her role as the improbably courageous child of privilege. Hanks, however, may strike some as a bit miscast as Bradlee, a journalist who was far more charismatic than Hanks' effective but understated portrayal, and probably more magnetic than even most real-life Hollywood movie stars. (The late Jason Robards' Bradlee in the 1976 Robert Redford-Dustin Hoffman "All the President's Men" still stands up very well). If you doubt it, check the new HBO documentary, "The Newspaperman," in which Bradlee, who died in 2014, serves as narrator through use of his narration in the audiobook of his 1996 autobiography, "A Good Life").

Most of the central figures in the movie — which is not as strong or nuanced as "Spotlight," the best newspaper movie of recent vintage — are no longer alive. They include Graham, Bradlee and Ben Bagdikian, a then-editor who was not a Bradlee chum (a bit too ideological for Bradlee) and procured the Post's copy of the Vietnam study from Ellsberg. Bagdikian is frequently forgotten in the history of the times but is wonderfully played here by Bob Odenkirk, the comic-actor best known for "Breaking Bad" and "Better Call Saul."

Those who are still very much around from the period include Peter Osnos, a great reporter-editor who went on to fashion a significant career in book publishing. He was sent to cover Vietnam by Bradlee when he was a mere 26 and was actually taking a brief rest in Hong Kong when the Pentagon Papers broke (an early movie scene mentions "Osnos" as having a story ready for the next day's paper).

He now recalls a period in which the paper went from being good to great. Under Bradlee, there was a sense of "being on a roll," with the Pentagon Papers amplifying the budding competition with The Times. There was "a surge in our self-esteem" with Bradlee serving as a nonpareil helmsman whose relationship to his boss, Graham, was "one of the great unconsummated love affairs in history."

"He knew how to make Katharine Graham proud and less afraid. He just had that presence."

It's a dynamic the film doesn't entirely capture. Perhaps one can partly blame it on Streep, who from early on evinces emerging strength and just devours the screen.

The real climax of the movie version is less the Supreme Court decision than a retirement cocktail party cum meeting with top advisers in which Graham is told that she's got to choose between her stock price or the newsroom. It was a profound decision and she went with the newsroom (though history would show she had her cake and ate it, too, as the Post did very well as a public company).

Graham was earthy, smart and instinctive and just loved journalism, says Osnos, whose own family is the same, with son Evan a great reporter for The New Yorker.  When Peter Osnos rose to the position of Post foreign editor, he didn't command the same overseas resources as The Times but "we always thought of ourselves as 'The Times and The Post,' meaning as de facto equals in no small measure due to the Graham-Bradlee inspiration and support.

When the Pentagon Papers surfaced, he had a sense of being part of something big and important, even though he readily underscores that the indefatigable Neil Sheehan — now 81 and not in the best of health (the interviews for the Ken Burns epic were done more than seven years ago) — was the real hero.

You listen to Osnos and, like others of his generation, the period remains so vivid and profound. The secret study of the war was appalling not just in its many separate revelations but also in the general uncovering of tragic, deathly bumbling by successive presidential administrations.

As I ambled out of a Chicago screening a few weeks ago, a young couple said they'd not known anything of the period. But it all seems so relevant these days, they conceded.

If Spielberg's "The Post" can inspire that sort of education, and a connection to the current rancorous times, it will serve a purpose, regardless of its shortcomings as a chronicle of our past.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former chief media writer, The Poynter Institute.


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