The Post is a well crafted film. The actors, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks turn in excellent performances as does the cast of supporting actors. The story line centers around the decision by the NYT and the Washington Post to publish excerpts from the Pentagon Papers. Meryl, portraying Katherine Graham, manages a dramatic transformation from a reserved housewife over her head in corporate and newsroom politics into a decisive, courageous executive with a responsible, historic perspective on current events.
So, my quick critique of the film is a definite thumbs up. It is indeed well worth seeing. But, my
reflections following focused much much more on the historical events, the evolution of government policy and the nuances implicit in such reflections.
The Vietnam War was a painful and contentious period in recent American history. It remains a divisive issue still today. Yet I find myself asking why? Surely the release of the Pentagon Papers and the closure of the war (albeit in defeat) should have lead to an acceptance of some measure of collective guilt. Yet it hasn't. The 'progressives' talk about the war in terms of a mistake. The conservatives still insist that we failed to use our military capability decisively in order to achieve victory. The fact though, as Tom Hanks says in the film, is that a series of governments from the Eisenhower Presidency through Nixon's, were "lying to the American people."
Personally I have no doubt about the consensus historical perspective which will emerge in the future. Historians will conclude that successive US administrations following WWII, while facing down a perceived communist threat, fell into the trap of continuing the interventionist policies of the English and the French during the colonial era. The French attempted to return to Indochina after the war. The US supported them and provided military assistance. Ho Chi Minh decisively defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. The negotiated settlement following their defeat resulted in their withdrawal. The settlement temporarily divided Vietnam into northern and southern regions. Elections were to be held to unify the country under one government. The US then stepped in and refused to allow elections, because it was evident that Uncle Ho would win them in a landslide victory. During the following two decades US governments concealed information from the American electorate, while progressively escalating the level of military violence. Terming this history a 'mistake' is tragically euphemistic.
There are additional subtleties that the film brings to light. The successive administrations that pursued these policies were both Republican and Democratic. Furthermore, Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee (the owner and the editor of the newspaper) were decidedly partisan in their politics. They had close personal relationships with President Kennedy and Secretary MacNamara. They had to come to terms with those personal conflicts when they took the decision to publish top secret government documents. But I am left with a nagging doubt here. If a Democratic Administration had continued in power rather than President Nixon, would they still have published? The film ends in platitudes about the victory for a free press. But have things really changed? The fabric of influence from corporate interests to cosy, partisan relations between politicians and journalists remains fundamentally intact. During the second Iraq War the press was embedded with the US army. The Washington Post is now owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.
And I have another nagging concern. For those of us who embrace a guilty verdict on US policy in Vietnam (still a minority opinion) Daniel Ellsberg was the true hero. He was the most principled player in the historic cast of characters. He was by far the most courageous. Recently some have suggested that Edward Snowden is also such a hero. The sad commentary though is that secret government policies and intrigue are ongoing. Daniel Ellsberg was acquitted of espionage charges. But Edward Snowden is living in exile.