Democracy Dies In the Darkness of the Theater: Critique of Spielberg’s Post
Regarding the movie The Post and its subject matter, the Pentagon Papers, I have some personal knowledge. At the time the Pentagon Papers began to be published in the summer of 1971, my father was highly placed in the Internal Security Division of the Justice Department and participated in the decision-making process regarding prosecution of the Pentagon Papers cases.
I have a specific recollection around that time of my father at the breakfast table with the family and, on several mornings, suddenly breaking out in a cursing rage. I was very perplexed by this behavior but after a while a pattern emerged. Whenever Dad broke out in one of these rages he was always holding the morning edition of the Washington Post.
As I came to discuss it with my father in later years, he was not angry and upset because Ellsberg had released embarrassing details about the Nixon administration. The revelations contained in the Pentagon papers were not an indictment of Nixon. They were an indictment of the one (Kennedy) who started the war and the other (Johnson) who dishonestly dragged us further into it. No, my father was angry at the narcissistic arrogance of a mid-level bureaucrat (Ellsberg) who arrogated foreign policy decision making to himself circumventing the duly elected and appointed representatives of government and doing so in a way that did damage to our foreign policy and our national security.
As noted in the movie, Ellsberg thought he was on a high moral mission to stop an “unwinnable” war. Hindsight proved him wrong. In fact, just as in Iraq, we did win the Vietnam war. But also, as in Iraq, we chose to abandon the place despite having won it. Whether we should have gone into either of those places in the first place is a separate issue. Ellsberg’s change of heart came only after we were well committed to the conflict.
Spielberg and those who crafted The Post had their political agenda. But how to make the message of The Post, an alleged historical drama, about the totalitarianism and the dangers of the right? Spielberg’s device is some creative parallel editing with some selective but out of context Nixon quotes. So, interspaced with the narrative of Post reporters obtaining a copy of the Pentagon Papers and the anguished discussions by the Post Publisher, Katherine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) and her advisers whether to publish, are nefarious scenes shot through White House windows with Nixon’s back to the camera while we hear snippets of his vindictive murmurings. As George Neumayr pointed out in the American Spectator these are taken out of context. Never mind that in one of the unredacted conversations Nixon tells his attorney general that he’s not terribly upset about publication since it shows Kennedy and Johnson to be liars.
The important point for the film maker is to paint a chimera of Nixonian corruption over the entire narrative. At one point the Streep character (Post publisher Katherine Graham), asks the character playing former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara for his advice as to whether she should publish.
His response leaves no doubt about the villainous intentions of the sinister fellow who occupied the oval office in the summer of 1971. “Nixon is a son-of-a-b**ch! … The Richard Nixon I know will use the full power of the presidency to destroy your paper!!”
Lest the filmmaker leave any doubt about the overarching evil of Nixon which pervades every crevice of this film, the very last scene of the movie is of the security guard discovering the break-in of the Democrat National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. Never mind that the break-in of the DNC was unrelated to the Prior Restraint case against the Post which is the subject matter of this film. The viewer must understand that the true and overriding source of government tyranny is Nixon and his illegitimate spawn.
In this film it’s all Nixon and by implication it’s all Trump.
What Spielberg fails to see is that government overreach and human corruption is not limited to a single political party or a lone person. It is part of a continuum of human history that began long before Kennedy and Johnson arrived on the scene. No, corruption didn’t end with Richard Nixon and it didn’t take a holiday during the Obama years and then suddenly resume again with the election of Donald Trump.
So Daniel Ellsberg is a hero for revealing the lies of our politicians in getting us entangled in the Vietnam war. How terrible of Nixon and his administration to threaten prosecution of Ellsberg and the brave Post reporters and their sources. But there was nothing wrong about Obama’s persecution of Edward Snowden and his sources, was there? It was fine that Obama’s Justice Department labeled Fox News Reporter James Rosen a criminal co-conspirator under the Espionage Act. And Julian Assange -- the one who revealed damning evidence showing the absolute corruption of Hillary Clinton and the DNC -- must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law too. No, unlike Ellsberg, there was nothing Snowden or Assuage revealed, as noted by Streep’s character, that would be of “interest” to the “people.” The 2015 surveillance of Sharyl Attkisson a former CBS Reporter, how could there be anything heavy handed about that? All of that occurred a few years ago during the most transparent administration in our history. Certainly Obama would never try to exclude a news organization that he disagrees with, unlike the draconian Nixon.
How ironic. Spielberg and Streep – they revile the former president who they ridicule in their artful movie, yet, at the recent Washington D.C. premiere of The Post they chose to have dinner with Obama, someone who they suggest to us is much different and apart from that other man who occupied the oval office in the summer of 1971.
If Nixon was our Richard the III surely Obama is our Iago. In fact, when you compare the corruption then as to now, I submit that even though Obama’s first name isn’t Richard, Barack is far and away much more deserving of the kingly crown for weaponizing the government in derogation of truth and justice and freedom.
Spielberg sees in another what he fails to see both in himself, in distorting truth in service of his “historical” narrative, and in failing to see that evil in front of his own face across the dinner table. Check out his interview here. In recent comments, Spielberg said that we are on the verge of a civil war between blue and red because of the inability of both sides to understand the truth as he sees it. He felt The Post had to be rushed into production because the fear that pervaded 2017 felt just like 1971. Apparently, he believes his own propaganda. As crazy as it seems to any rational thinker, it would appear Spielberg honestly believes that Nixon (and Trump) are the only threats to freedom, and that Obama is the only restorer of it.
If we are to avoid that civil war Spielberg fears we must have leaders in government and in academia and yes, in media, who are lovers, not of a political ideology, but rather, of the truth regardless of where that truth leads.