I saw “The Post” last night. And the first thing I did when I got home was fire up the computer and test it. How close to the real story was it? What liberties did director Steven Spielberg and his team take with the story of the Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War?
I was not surprised to find that significant chunks of the story … just didn’t happen that way. I’m not surprised because Hollywood does this to true stories. And Spielberg is as Hollywood as it gets. It’s frustrating because most filmgoers do not do web research on “historic” movies and folks wind up with a distorted sense of our history. Kind of “fake news,” Tinseltown style.
Here are some things to note:
• I can’t find anything that corroborates the scene in which a woman plops a chunk of the papers on the desk of a general assignment reporter.
• At the time of the movie, 1971, Katharine Graham had been publisher of the Post for eight years. The movie depicts her as needing coaching on aspects of the business she would have already mastered. Yes, she obviously grew more confident in her role … but it didn’t happen in a week.
• Also, no stock had been sold in the company’s initial public offering at the time of the publication of the papers. Spielberg includes a stock exchange scene in which the sale is celebrated. Sorry, didn’t happen then.
• The “Arthur Parsons” character played by Bradley Whitford who counsels Graham not to publish the papers and who questions whether she has the “right stuff” to be publisher … is complete fiction. No such person exists/existed.
• In the movie Post executive editor Ben Bradlee sends an intern to New York to spy on the Times and hopefully find out what their ace reporter, Neil Sheehan, is up to. Never happened. And this one really stings because Spielberg clearly wants to be seen as a booster of the free press in the Trump era. So he throws in an egregious ethical breach.
• President Nixon did not ban Washington Post reporters from the White House after the publication of their story on the papers. Nor did he ban them from his daughter’s wedding. Spielberg milks this for dramatic effect, with Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, fuming because the Post published a story on its front page on the wedding while the N.Y. Times had its top story on the Pentagon Papers.
• Were there protesters with huge signs saying “Free the Press Now!” outside the Supreme Court when it heard the case? Can’t find anything on that one.
• Did Graham, played by Meryl Streep, walk past an admiring throng of young women when she exited the courtroom? She was an extraordinary woman and deserves the acclaim, but that scene seems a bit fanciful.
• Also, it’s odd that Spielberg picked the Post instead of the Times for his movie. The Times was WAY ahead of the Post on this one, published first, got shut down by the feds first, and went to court first. But the Times did not have a woman publisher. Which gave Spielberg another button to push.
• Oh, the kid selling the lemonade outside Bradlee's house while he and his staff worked on the papers ... that one is true. Spielberg never misses a trick with cute kids!
Meanwhile, I went out to the Book Bin today and bought Graham’s book. The clerk asked me if I had seen the movie. "Yes," I told her, "and now I want to find out what really happened."
Spielberg oddity. In reading about the movie I noticed that it was brought to the public with remarkable swiftness. Principal photography, as they say in the film biz, began in May, and the picture was released in December. That seven-month cycle is months quicker and sometimes years quicker than any Spielberg-directed movie since Indiana Jones 4 10 years ago ... which is as far back as I went. Did the speed with which they put it together affect its quality? Doesn't really matter what I think. It will make a ton of money.