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The Post (USA/India 2017) with a Q&A

Posted by keith1942 on February 4, 2018

This is the new film directed by Steven Spielberg. It recounts that actual events [not completely accurately] around the publication of a set of secret documents that detailed the history of the war by the Unites States against Vietnam up until 1966. These documents revealed that, among other failings, the US administration, including Presidents, had lied to the US people. The film presents the story of how The Washington Post, with limited acknowledgement of The New York Times who actually broke the story, published parts of The Papers and successfully defended this in the Supreme Court of the USA. The film’s focus is primarily on the owner of the publishing company, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep); a company that owned other media including television stations. The other key character is the then editor of The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Less centrally we see Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), who leaked the documents; Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), then Secretary of Defence, who commission The Papers; various journalists and,. briefly, workers at the paper, opponents of the Vietnam War and, in reverse shots through a window, President Nixon (Curzon Dobell).

On Sunday January 28th the Hyde Park screened the title followed by a Q&A led by Granville Williams. This rather made up for every screening bar one in that week [Jupiter’s Moon on Tuesday] on the cinema’s single screen was this drama. Granville Williams is an experienced writer and commentator on the Media and the Press. For a long time he was the editor of the FreePress of the Campaign for Freedom in the Press and Media. Over a hundred people turned up for the screening and about half of them stayed for the Q&A.

Granville introduced the discussion with some background on the events depicted in the film. He commented that there were a selection of films that portrayed journalist in an ‘honourable’ light. He mentioned All the President’s Men (1976), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) and Spotlight (2015). Not in the same class but also recent was State of Play (2009), inferior to the original British television version. Of course, classic Hollywood had a whole cycle of films about conscientious, determined and ‘freedom loving’ journalists: think Frank Capra and Howard Hawks.

Granville made the point that The Post does not offer a proper focus on the role of The New York Times. Moreover, The Washington Post, as the film characters tell us, was not national paper in the same way as The Times at this point. But in addition The Post only joined the criticisms of the US war in Vietnam in 1969.

Granville was not convinced by the characterisation of Katharine Graham in the film. The portrayal shows her as frequently hesitant, which was not his sense of the actual person. When she took over the company after the death of her husband [a nasty-sounding type) and her son, she started to change the paper. It was she that recruited Ben Bradlee as editor. Granville also reckoned that the actual Bradlee was more motivated by competition with The New York Times than the liberal cause; a point only slightly proposed in the film. And Granville lamented that since then both The Times and The Post had sunk to supporting the US military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

One of the aspects of the film that did impress him was the focus on the actual process of printing the paper. But later shareholder pressure, [the film shows the company going ‘public’ on Wall Street] led to the introduce of new technology. There was a long strike in 1975 through 1976 which Granville compared to the events at Wapping organised by the Murdoch Press. And he noted that late in her life Graham supported Ronald Reagan.

Granville got a well deserved round of applause for this introduction and then we had some questions and comments by members of the audience.

A woman commented on the decline of the US provincial press, papers which are briefly referenced in the film, and noted that critical journalism on the war in Afghanistan tended to be in books rather than the mainstream media.

Granville gave an example of books produced by journalists, remarking that because much of this reportage was not aired on television the journalist had to rely on book publishing to recount their stories. He gave an example of one involving the USA where missiles supposedly supplied to the Mujahidin ended up in other hands. Regarding the provincial press in the USA he noted that this was a pale shadow of it former self.

A man asked about The New York Times’ role and compared the press role then and the seemingly chaotic media coverage in the USA today.

Granville praised the high standards that operated in The Times at this period. He noted that issues like ‘fake news’ were part of the problems in the USA media. But he pointed out there were still alternative press and media.

Another audience member commented that the crisis in journalism was not just in the USA but globally. He opined that there was also a crisis in the recruitment of a new generation of journalists which exacerbated problems. Granville concurred with this and cited the developments in Russia.

An earlier questioner returned to the state of the US press and regretted the demise of what was an array of ‘afternoon papers’ in the USA. She did though, see a ‘ray of light’ in the British Financial Times’ exposé of the events at the Presidents’ Club.

Granville picked up on the issue of ‘good journalism’. He noted a US report which showed that the number of major media corporations in the USA had reduced from 50 in 1953 to only 5 in 2004. He also noted similar problems in Britain and cited the increasing monopoly in the regional press.

Another questioner asked about the issue of ‘fake news’ and how this related to the representation of social groups in the newspaper industry in the USA.

Granville responded that there was a class division in the contemporary readership. The press mainly catered for the rich and affluent classes, exemplified in the type of advertising which catered for the well-off. He felt that a good newspaper should be rooted in communities. He noted how The Washington Post, even in it heyday, catered for the Washington elite. He gave as an example in Britain the Daily Mirror. Though he did not approve of Piers Morgan it should be noted that when he was editor, the paper opposed the military aggression in Iraq. The only other papers to do so were The Independent and The Guardian. He reckoned this was very much to do with The Mirror’s relationship to its readership. It was a paper that addressed work and working people.

I raised three points here. One was the failure of the film to represent the workers at The Post in any meaningful way. There was the almost complete absence of any representation of the Vietnamese People against whom the illegal war was waged. And I also suggested that The Post and The Times did not oppose the war per se but only the misconduct and cover-up by administrations.

Granville broadly agreed. He told a story about a CBS reporter who intervened when US soldiers were threatening to ‘incinerate’ Vietnamese woman and children. His employer, CBS, agonized over whether to run the story or not. When they did run the story, in a telephone call that mirrored scenes in the film, a White House aide rang and complained the network had ‘shit on the American Flag’. Granville went on to point out how the draft was class divided: working class recruits, frequently black, went to die in Vietnam whilst more affluent youngsters were able to avoid this.

The session wrapped up then with an appreciation of Granville’s presentation and responses.

I found this session following the film very helpful in getting to grips with the issues involved. My impression after the screening, including comments by other members of the audience, was that the majority were impressed with the film. I was not. Even as cinema I had lots of reservations. The film struck me as extremely conventional. For example, after the main title there is the whir and thump of a helicopter on the sound track and then it is 1966 and we see ‘grunts’ [US soldiers] forming up at a camp in Vietnam. There follows a night ‘firefight’ with the Viet Cong, merely shadows among the trees firing at the US squad. There is a cut to daytime and there is Daniel Ellsberg siting in the open at a typewriter on a makeshift desk. Where have I seen and heard this before?

There follows a sequence on a US plane flying from Vietnam. Ellsberg is called by Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara to support his claim that the war is going badly. But when the plane lands McNamara tells the assembled Press that the conduct of the war ‘exceeds our expectations’.

By 1969 Ellsberg is working at the RAND Corporation and has access to the report that McNamara commissioned on the history of the war in Vietnam, i.e. ‘The Pentagon Papers’. We see him smuggling out parts of this voluminous report and then, with help, photocopying pages whilst another man cuts off the ‘Top Secret’ titling on each page. This is the point in the film when the audience are given a sense of what is in these papers. This is a typical Hollywood trope; shots of sections of pages and particular paragraphs. It is a sort of montage just giving viewers snippets. It reminded me of a similar sequence in Reds (1981) where a potentially interesting discussion between John Reed (Warren Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) is reduced to a series of snippets devoid of serious political content.

Several people have remarked that one needs a sense of ‘The Pentagon Papers’ to follow the early part of the film, as it fails to give a thorough presentation. This rather glib approach re-appears later in the film. The Washington Post receives copies of those parts of the papers purloined by Ellsberg. The editor and a group of journalist sort through these, under a deadline pressure, sifting out information for a major report. In this scene the papers are all mixed up and the journalists have to try and sort them. I found this odd. Given the type of character Ellsberg was this seems rather unlikely. Moreover it works as a way of producing more snippets from the papers. Individual journalists call out sentences of note from the papers, other journalist respond and add to this. It is melee of quotes that damn different Presidents but do not really give the overall sense, apart from a the recurring sense of administration lies and cover-ups. They do point the finger at all the Presidents, and we see their images at one point on screen: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and, now Nixon.

A major problem in the film follows from the way that the story is scripted. The original script was by Liz Hannah. This was worked over by Josh Singer. Spielberg does not have a script credits but he appears to have had some input here. The story focuses on The Washington Post and in particular the owner at this period [it was a family owned company] Katherine Graham. This choice immediately side-lines the role of The New York Times. Ellsberg initially pass the copies of the papers to a Times journalist, It was the New York Times that broke the story and was taking to court by the administration. The Supreme Court decision in this case involved both The New York Times and The Washington post. In fact, The Times was the paper that won a Pulitzer prize for its reporting of the issue.

So the central character in the film is Katherine Graham, owner of the publishing company. In what seems to be the influence of current gender concerns in the industry the film presents Graham as a woman resisting masculine hegemony in a world dominated by men. So at Board meetings Graham, despite being officially in control, is side-lined and patronised by the suited male members. The characters is written as repressed by this dominance but gradually emerging and exercising authority. Granville used the term ‘hesitant’ to describe the character. He questioned whether this was accurate: characterising her as powerful and decisive. I was unconvinced by the characterisation in the course of the film, it did not seem to fit. Whilst Streep does give a fine performance it also seemed rather mannered; she does have that tendency. In some scenes it reminded me of her performance in Florence Foster Jenkins (2016).

Another point is interesting. Granville commented on her now dead husband. Apparently at one point he had a very public affair with another woman, which was a humiliating experience for Graham in the closed circles of the Washington elite. That seems an aspect that would have fitted current Academe concerns. As it is the film overdoes the issue of gender. After the Supreme Court hearing we see Graham wending her way through a crowd of young, smiling women: no men in sight. That might happen in 2017, it seems much less likely in 1973.The film spends quite a lot of time on the issue of The Post going public, i.e. opening up the company to investors beyond the family and selling these on the Wall Street Stock Exchange. Thus brings an added set of pressures on the paper and on Graham. We see several board meetings where Graham is patronised by the male members and where they also oppose the paper’s reporting of The Pentagon Papers as likely to undermine the business. The film takes this type of capitalist system for granted. There is not really a questioning of either family control of a media business and the question of financial control is not addressed. There is a sort irony here because the film is distributed by Fox Searchlight, part of a prime example of a family controlled media empire. I did wonder if I should boo when the Fox Searchlight logo appeared.

The film also spends time on the family life of Graham and of her editor Bradlee. Graham’s daughter is shown as supportive and there are references to the dead husband and son. In Bradlee’s case we see his young daughter, a budding entrepreneur who makes dollars selling lemonade to the working journalists; a missed opportunity for irony. None of the other characters enjoy this sort of personal background, certainly not Ellsberg, who we learn in dialogue has recently married.

I also had reservations about the characterisation of Ben Bradlee. In the early stages we get sense of how important is the competitive aspect with The New York Times for The Post editor. But in the later stages and by the climax the emphasis is on Press Freedom and the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The role does not effect the sharp edge that Newspaper editors need, brilliantly done by Jason Robards as the same character in All The Presidents’ Men and also well done by John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr. in Spotlight. Tom Hanks does a fair job with the role and I think the weakness is in the writing. There is a scene with Graham and Bradlee as they survey set of regional titles now carrying reports on The Papers. This is an example of collective defence but their main response is that it demonstrates that The Post has arrived as a ‘national newspaper’.

In fact the film does not develop journalistic practices as effectively as the other films mentioned. The only journalist/editor whose work we see in some detail is Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), who was the paper’s staff member who actually received The Papers from Ellsberg. But even here little space is giving to his journalistic work in reporting this. That is an aspect, as with journalist investigation that both All The President’s Men and Spotlight do very well. There is little of this in The Post. The scene that I mentioned earlier where Bradlee and a team sort through The Papers does not have much of a journalistic flavour and is more concerned with presenting notable snippets to viewers.

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The same applies to the print workers at the paper. We get a series of close-ups of the machinery as the reports are printed. However, the shot of the print workers are mainly long-shots and only concerned with their actions, at the machinery or loading the printed papers onto lorries. There is one shot where the workers pick up the printed newspapers as they stream from the machinery, but there is no indication of their responses. A comparable sequence in the British political thriller Defence of the Realm (1986) does offer some characterisation of the print-workers on a British paper.

A similar problem applies to the other ordinary workers we see in the film. We do get a slight cameo from a secretary as Graham attends the Supreme Court for the hearings. But this scene seems mainly designed to reinforce the message re gender, as the secretary complains about her boss, a Senator,.

The ‘grunts’ in the opening sequence do a little better. We hear their dialogue, but this is so that we know that Daniel Ellsberg is going with them into the jungle. Here, in a night scene, we get our single look at the Vietnamese, shadows behind trees and foliage firing at the US soldiers. The peace groupings opposed to the war do little better. We see a protest where just about everyone is dressed like hippies and as a man takes up a microphone: we cut to another scene. I could not see any of the Vietnam veterans, already s significant force by this stage.

And we see only glimpses of the Supreme Court Justices, the event that the whole of the previous film has been leading up to. The decision is actually heard own a telephone as a breathless woman office worker calls out the result. President Nixon does somewhat better than these social groupings. We see and hear him several times, in a reverse shot as he stands by a White House window talking down the telephone; these lines seem some of the most accurate in the film and are presumably taken from the infamous tape recordings.

Individually, many of these decisions in the film could be justified. However, overall it renders the storytelling extremely conventional. The focus of gender is fine, but it denies space to equally important issues such as class and imperial xenophobia. It apparently also denies space to anti-racism. There were some black faces, including among the ‘grunts’. But they were not noticeable on The Post. Yet Granville pointed out that, due to the Civil Rights movement, by this stage the paper had recruited a number of young Afro-Americans. The treatment also undermines generic features,. Several critics describe the films as ‘political thriller’. But I found the story, even in the sequences meant to generate tension, lacking in this. Many of the audience will know from history that The Post [and the New York Times] won the battle. So the lengthy sequences where the editor and his journalists or Graham and her board members debate the issuer lacked tension over the outcome.

This is matter of style. Spotlight was a film where many of us knew the outcome but the film still generated tension in certain sequences. Spotlight also effectively gave voice to the victims of Church abuse. This, as I suggest, is missing in The Post. And it is missing in the treatment of Ellsberg. We only find out in the dialogue that he was recently married when these event occurred. He does not receive the family context awarded to Graham and Bradlee. Much of the film was predictable including the closing shots, the Watergate Building as the staff discover the burglars sent by the White House. This is an unfortunate choice. It reminds viewers of the fine political thriller, All the Presidents’ Men. That is a film that dramatises a parallel story, present journalist practice very effectively, ramps up the tension in many sequences, and is able to give viewers a clear sense of the crimes perpetrated.

The Post was put together when another Spielberg project fell through. Apparently it was made relativity fast. This may account for the main weak aspects of the film. It compares unfavourably with other treatments. A particularly good example is The Most Dangerous Man in America.: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers [the first part of the title is a quote by Henry Kissinger, [another participants never bought to justice]. This is a documentary partially narrated by Ellsberg himself. It was written by Lawrence Lerew & Rick Goldsmith & Judith Ehrlich & Michael Chandler. The film was directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith for Goldsmith’s company Kovno Communications. It premiered in the USA on Public Broadcast Television and has been seen at festivals and on national television networks. It won an Academy Award as Best Documentary.

The film covers a lot of matters left out in The Post. We learn much more about Ellsberg, his career and his motivations. The story of The New York Times is fully presented. And the events that follows between publication in the two papers and the Supreme Court hearings are filled in. Thus it becomes clear that Ellsberg passed The Pentagon Papers to other new outlets who also printed them. And we see a US Senator, Mike Gravel, who read extensive extracts from The Papers into the Congressional record.

Some of the scenes, like that between Ellsberg and McNamara flying back from Vietnam, are extremely similar: both part of the record. But Ellsberg experiences in Vietnam and researching the war is presented in an extensive fashion. Even here it is difficult give a comprehensive sense of the exposure but it is fuller than in the Hollywood version. And in a small but significant scene we see the print-workers at The Post congratulating each other as the newspapers, with the reports, stream off the machines.

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Granville also prepared some notes prior to the screening which include some of the books he mentioned:

The Post in an honourable addition to Hollywood films All The Presidents Men (1976), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Spotlight (2015)) which portray journalists and journalism in a positive way, as opposed to grubby hacks chasing squalid, sensational headlines .

When I see films like these I wonder why UK film directors haven’t tackled such subjects. Couldn’t the dogged work of Guardian journalist, Nick Davies, as he probed and finally exposed the industrial scale of phone-hacking at Murdoch’s News of the World, be a suitable subject?

The credits for The Post say it is ‘based on a true story’ and whilst I can quibble with the way the film modifies some of the facts about the way the Washington Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham, finally came to back publication of the Pentagon Papers, I think the film captures perfectly how enmeshed she was in the Washington elite and the political and commercial pressures on her to take an easier route, and not publish the papers.

I will talk more about this in the Q&A session following the 5.00pm showing of the film on Sunday 28 January at the Hyde Park Picture House. Here I just want to develop a couple of points about two aspects of the film.

One is the way that Spielberg focuses on the old hot metal printing press scenes and the workings of the Linotype machines assembling the lines of type for the stories. It’s very evocative.

In 1975 after Watergate there was a ferocious strike by printers which set her and the newspaper on a conservative course. Graham devoted dozens of pages in her autobiography Personal History to vilifying Post press operators who went on strike in 1975. She stressed the damage done to printing equipment as the walkout began and “the unforgivable acts of violence throughout the strike.”

John Hanrahan, a Newspaper Guild member at the Post, wouldn’t cross the picket lines and never went back. He pointed out,

“The Washington Post under Katharine Graham pioneered the union-busting ‘replacement worker’ strategy that Ronald Reagan subsequently used against the air-traffic controllers and that corporate America — in the Caterpillar, Bridgestone/Firestone and other strikes — used to throw thousands of workers out of their jobs in the 1980s and the ’90s.”

The other point is on the role of Ben Bagdikian in the film – he’s the journalist who gets access to Daniel Ellsberg and persuades him to hand over 4000 pages for the Post to use. He was national editor on the Post, a man who the editor, Ben Bradlee, in his autobiography, ‘A Good Life’, describes as ‘thorny’. Bagdikian had a big influence on me, and others interested in media reform. He wrote a key book ‘The Media Monopoly’ (1983) which warned about the chilling effects of corporate ownership and mass advertising on US media. Fifty corporations owned most of the US media when he wrote the first edition. By the time he wrote ‘The New Media Monopoly’ (2004) it had dwindled to five.

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Granville made a mention of Ken Burns documentary series The Vietnam War (2017), which has been screened on BBC 4. However, it should be noted that the original was 18 hours of archive material and comment. The version transmitted by the BBC only ran a little over nine hours. Worse, at no point did the BBC publicity or announcements point out that this was a truncated version.

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