It’s been a long time since I heard an audience applaud at the end of a movie, probably not since a Saturday matinee back in the day.
Two weeks ago, I heard it again.
This was the applause at the end of “The Post,” a gritty motion picture about the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the Washington Post.
The Pentagon Papers was, of course, a top-secret Rand Corporation study of America’s role in Vietnam, from the Truman Administration through the Johnson Administration. Released – stolen, if you prefer – by defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg, the documents traced the mistakes, misjudgments, rationalizations and downright lies that guided our way in Vietnam and led, ultimately, to the deaths of more than 55,000 young Americans.
Ellsberg, who said he released the documents to show we were involved in “a wrongful war,” was eventually indicted by a grand jury, but his case was dismissed because of Nixon Administration misdeeds.
When I first heard of the movie, I was surprised and more than a little confused. I recalled that it was, after all, The New York Times that printed the first historic installment of the Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971. Why should the movie be about The Washington Post, which was a kind of Johnny-come-lately? It turns out that the Post’s decision to publish tested the First Amendment in a way no other newspaper ever has.
After the Nixon Administration persuaded a federal court to place a temporary restraining order on The New York Times, Ellsberg turned to the Washington Post. The Post had not been named in the court order, but there were fears it could be in contempt if it went ahead while the case was being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Both newspapers had received the documents from the same source.
As the movie points out, publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Steep) and editor Ben Bradley (Tom Hanks) were in a precarious position. If found in contempt for publishing, they could face heavy fines, possibly jail time. It could also spell the end of The Post as a viable newspaper just as it was about to go public in order to raise capital.
What the public never saw was the pressure Graham received from her lawyers and others, all of them urging her to play it safe.
It was no easy decision. Graham had ascended to the publisher’s office only after her husband died and, as elegantly portrayed by Streep, was caught between the editorial and the financial. On one side was her board of directors, on the other the headstrong Bradley, arguing for the public’s right to know, for freedom of the press and – no small matter this – for the chance to put The Post on near parity with The Times.
In a memorable scene, during agonizing hems and haws, Graham suddenly decided on a course of action.
“Let’s publish,” she said simply, and the presses began rolling.
Almost two weeks later, the Supreme Court, on 6-3 decision, ruled that publishing the Pentagon Papers posed no threat to national security and lifted the restraining order.
It was a split decision, yet it was a monumental victory for the First Amendment – and that is what the audience was cheering.
Contact Bob Bestler at firstname.lastname@example.org.