'The Post': Pentagon Papers Put The Press Under Pressure Steven Spielberg's account of the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 is melodrama, but Bob Mondello says it's urgent — and effective.


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'The Post': Pentagon Papers Put The Press Under Pressure

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Steven Spielberg's new movie "The Post" stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. It's a story of journalists, government leaks and a president who hates the press. It's the true story of the Pentagon Papers. NPR critic Bob Mondello says there's a reason Spielberg rushed to tell the story now.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: He really did rush. Spielberg had long been talking about a Pentagon Papers film, but the 2016 election made him feel it had become urgent. He got the working script just weeks after the inauguration, rounded up his high-powered cast and leaped into production as if he were producing a little indie flick on the fly. Only this story is big, starting with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara talking with staffers on a plane about how badly things are going in Vietnam, then saying this to reporters when they touch down.


BRUCE GREENWOOD: (As Robert McNamara) Asked whether I was optimistic or pessimistic today, I can tell you that military progress over the past 12 months has exceeded our expectations. We're very encouraged by what we're seeing in Vietnam.

MONDELLO: Staffer Daniel Ellsberg registers how this doesn't jibe with what McNamara was saying on the plane or with a secret government report he has access to. When he leaks that report, The New York Times gets a huge scoop, and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee...


TOM HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) Is anybody else tired of reading the news instead of reporting it?

MONDELLO: ...Gets riled at being scooped.


HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) We are sucking hind tit in our own backyard.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Ben, come on. It's one story.

HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) No, it's 7,000 pages detailing how the White House has been lying about the Vietnam war for 30 years. It's Truman and Eisenhower and Jack. LBJ lying - lying about Vietnam. And you think that's one story. Let's do our jobs. Find those pages.

MONDELLO: Now, today The Washington Post is a brand name. In 1971, it was an underfunded family-owned newspaper making its first stock offering with a perceived disadvantage. The recent death of publisher Philip Graham had left his wife, Katharine, at the helm.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Kay, it's unfortunate, but the buyers are obviously skittish about having a woman in charge. And it's not like it's an easy sell. It's a local paper with modest margins, modest ambitions.

MONDELLO: Bradlee's ambitions were not modest, however. He just needed time, and suddenly he had it.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Turn it up.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Good evening. The New York Times late today was barred at least until Saturday from publishing any more classified documents dealing with the cause and conduct of the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration had charged that the final two parts of The Time's series would result in irreparable injury to the national defense.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Hell, why bother fighting the communists?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) I think Jefferson just rolled over in his grave.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Have the courts ever stopped a paper from publishing before?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Not in the history of the republic.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) Good thing we're not part of this mess.

HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) I'd give my left one to be in this mess.

MONDELLO: And then he was. They got the papers. Though The Post seems to fit squarely with Spielbergian histories like "Lincoln" and "Schindler's List," there's a definite Ark of the Covenant vibe when the box of Pentagon Papers arrives and an "Indiana Jones" urgency to the frenzy that follows since The Post had hours to sift through thousands of pages and do what had taken The Times months.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) I think this memo's from McNamara.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) Anybody see a mention of the RAND Viet Cong study?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) Yeah, I think this might be from your RAND study. VC are deeply committed. South Vietnam is a lost cause.

HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) Whoa.

MONDELLO: The film isn't Spielberg's subtlest, but it has some nicely subtle touches - long lens cameras peering through White House windows to catch a glimpse of a president and his henchmen as we hear their actual voices from tapes Nixon was forced to give up years later.


HENRY KISSINGER: This violates all sorts of security laws.

RICHARD NIXON: People have got to be put to the torch for this sort of thing.

MONDELLO: Put to the torch - a phrase you don't hear much today in a film where the clatter of typewriters competes with the whoosh of pages sent by pneumatic tube to a press room where molten lead turns them into lines of type. And running the show - Tom Hanks as a blustery Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep...


MERYL STREEP: (As Kay Graham) Hello. Good morning, everybody.

MONDELLO: ...As a hesitant but steely Katharine Graham, seemingly the only woman in the corridors of power and, ironically, the one with the power to defend the First Amendment. Bradlee can talk principle all he wants.


HANKS: (As Ben Bradlee) If we don't hold them accountable, I mean, my God, who will?

MONDELLO: But only Graham can publish.


STREEP: (As Kay Graham) Well, I've never smoked a cigar, and I have no problem holding Lyndon or Jack or Bob or any of them accountable. We can't hold them accountable if we don't have a newspaper.

MONDELLO: Yes, it's melodrama but effective about an age where the First Amendment means something, where a power-mad president gets called to account by a crusading press, where a woman can not just find her voice but - well, as Spielberg does in "The Post," I should let you fill in the blanks. Trust me. You will. I'm Bob Mondello.

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