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Movie Review

Thou shalt not lie.

It's right there in the Bible: explicit. Unambiguous. No asterisks, no modifiers. And yet people—sometimes good people, for what they think are good reasons—lie anyway.

On June 13, 1971, the front page of The New York Times reveals that the United States government has been lying for decades about its involvement in Vietnam. Times Reporter Neil Sheehan unveils systematic deception spanning four presidential administrations—information culled from a secret, 47-volume government study that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers.

The story hits Washington like an incendiary bomb. Two days later, the Nixon administration tries to douse the fire. It goes to court to stop the Times from publishing and wins a temporary injunction halting the story's publication. Sheehan, for the moment, is silenced.

But during that injunction, the Pengaton Papers—most of them anyway—find their way to the Times' upstart rival, The Washington Post.

That puts Post publisher Kay Graham in something of an ethical pickle.

Kay's been in the newspaper business most of her life. Her father, Eugene, bought the Washington Post when she was just 16. Her husband then ran it for years (before committing suicide). Now she's in charge—the first woman to run a major daily newspaper in the country. She knows journalism; and she appreciates good, fearless reporting.

But Kay's also one of Washington's leading socialites. She crosses party aisles and calls everyone from Kissinger to the Kennedys her friends. Why, one of her besties just happens to be Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense … and the guy who commissioned the Pentagon Papers.

If Kay gives the green light for her paper to publish its own set of stories based on the Pentagon Papers, she risks almost everything she cares about: her friends. Her status. Her paper. And she knows that as soon as Nixon reads the first word of the first story, the government will likely take her to court, too.

But if she doesn't publish, is she abdicating the Post's responsibility to be the so-called Fourth Estate? To hold the country's powers accountable?

Thou shalt not lie, the Bible says. The truth shall set you free, it adds. But in Kay's case, this particular truth just might get her locked up.

Positive Elements

The Post is an old-school salute to the importance of good, aggressive journalism. And while I realize that the media is about as popular these days as botulism, I think most of us would agree that when it works, a free press performs an important service: telling the truth and holding those in power accountable for their actions. "The press was supposed to serve the governed," we hear recited from a Supreme Court decision in the film, "not the governors."

Given history's hindsight, I think most believe that the Pentagon Papers should've been reported. But that decision wasn't so obvious before Watergate. It's interesting to watch Kay Graham wrestle with her decision—one she wants to make for the right reasons, not selfish ones. She's no arch-liberal bent on bringing down Nixon (who, incidentally, wasn't implicated in the Pentagon Papers); she frets that publishing this story might put soldiers in harm's way. (The Post's editor, Ben Bradlee, promises her it won't.)

That said, she's also morally indignant when she learns that according to the Pentagon Papers, the government knew Vietnam was an unwinnable conflict pretty early on, and it still sent soldiers to fight and die for years afterwards. She believes the government should be called to account for that—and rightly so.

The Post also gives us a three-dimensional picture of Kay. She's a powerful businesswoman trying to make her way in a time when women just didn't do that sort of thing. At first shunted into the background by her own advisors, Kay gradually grows into a formidable leader as the crisis unfolds, finally taking full control of the newspaper.

But even though her publishing gig turns her into something of a feminist role model, Kay remains deeply grounded in her identity apart from her work. She tells her daughter how much she loved being a wife and a mother before her husband died, and she clearly still relishes being a grandmother.

Spiritual Content

Kay quotes English essayist Samuel Johnson's opinion on women preaching: "A woman's preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, and you are surprised to find it done at all."

Sexual Content

None.

Violent Content

The movie opens with a scene in Vietnam in which soldiers engage in a chaotic firefight. We see the flash of muzzles and hear the report of bullets. A few bodies fly and fall lifeless, and someone pushes a wounded soldier—his forehead stained with blood—down to the ground to help keep him safe. We see old news footage about the war and troop movements, too, and we hear references to battlefield deaths. Some war protesters get a little unruly. Kay and others mention her husband's suicide.

Crude or Profane Language

One f-word and about 15 s-words. Other vulgarities include "a--," "b--ch," "b--tard," "d--n," "h---" and "p-ss." We hear a crude reference to the male anatomy, and we see two obscene hand gestures. God's name is misused at least a dozen times, eight of those combined with "d--n." Jesus' name is abused about 10 times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Most journalists in the 1970s were heavy smokers—or so the movies have always told us—so naturally we see plenty of cigarettes throughout. A guest at one of Kay's dinner parties puffs on a cigar. When Ben Bradlee's daughter sells lemonade to Post staffers (who holed up in Ben's house and poring over the papers), one of them asks whether she might put some vodka in his drink. Ben's daughter politely refuses. Wine and champagne make appearances at dinners and parties.

Other Negative Elements

Though The Post tells us that publishing the Pentagon Papers was right, even heroic, we should not lose sight of the fact that those papers were also classified. A man named Daniel Ellsberg essentially stole them—spiriting them out of a secure facility—and made copies to distribute to The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers. (In real life, Ellsberg was later charged with theft and conspiracy, but was cleared of all charges in 1973.)

Conclusion

Fake news—and the allegations of it—aren't new. Ever since the first broadsheets were run off the first printing presses, anxiety about the veracity of news reports has been a part of our culture.

Sometimes the media has been at fault, reporting rumors, half-truths or outright lies. "The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them," Thomas Jefferson once said. But sometimes fake news isn't fake at all: Richard Nixon constantly harangued the media for reporting "lies" that, history now tells us, turned out to be true. Truths published first, incidentally, by Kay Graham's Washington Post. The Pentagon Papers were merely a warmup for the paper.

So what's the truth of The Post?

First, it's a worthy, watchable movie, aesthetically speaking. Its iconic prime movers—director Steven Spielberg and actors Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks—have collectively won eight Oscars and have been nominated for 32. So, frankly, it'd be hard for this film to fail artistically.

It's not fake news to say that this story is pretty compelling, too. Even though history spoiled the ending nearly 50 years ago, you can still feel this story's moral tension. Also gratifying: the movie steers well clear of gratuitous sexual asides and shows considerable restraint in terms of violence. Not that the story lends itself to a lot of harsh content: The "action" here, such as it is, is pretty cerebral.

But The Post does not show such restraint in its language. And while that language is likely true to the story (as a newsroom vet myself, I know that not every journalist says "golly" when things get stressful), it certainly makes the film a more questionable ticket.

And that's no lie.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Genre

Drama

Author

Cast

Meryl Streep as Kay Graham; Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee; Sarah Paulson as Tony Bradlee; Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian; Tracy Letts as Fritz Beebe; Bradley Whitford as Arthur Parsons; Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara; Matthew Rhys as Daniel Ellsberg; Alison Brie as Lally Graham; Carrie Coon as Meg Greenfield

Director

Steven Spielberg ( )

Distributor

20th Century Fox

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

December 22, 2017

On Video

April 17, 2018

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults
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