This 27 January 2018 Dutch NOS TV video shows an interview with Steven Spielberg on his new film The Post
I saw this film on 18 February 2018.
The theme of the film is the United States war on Vietnam; more especially, the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
Who were the heroes of the resistance against the Vietnam war in the USA? As this film review by David Swanson says, they were the peace demonstrators protesting in their millions, though government violence killed some of them, like at the Jackson State and Kent State universities massacres. However, in the film, anti-war demonstrators are hardly more than extras. Only once, a demonstrator says a few sentences:
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!
What that demonstrator says is part of this speech:
That video from the USA is called Mario Savio “The Machine Speech” on The Sproul Hall Steps, December 2, 1964. As the video says, that speech was in 1964 in California, not in 1971 in Washington what the film is about. That Savio speech was not about the Vietnam war, but about the students’ Free Speech Movement for the right to be in solidarity with the civil rights movement of African American people.
Who was the hero of the publication of the Pentagon Papers? It was Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg is not a main character in the film, though more than an extra. The film starts with Ellsberg as a government investigator with United States soldiers in a rainforest in Vietnam. Ever since the early 1950s, United States presidents had lied that the Vietnam war was going hunky dory. But Ellsberg sees how a firefight breaks out, and many US soldiers are injured or killed.
On the way back from Vietnam, Ellsberg is on the same plane as Pentagon Secretary Robert McNamara. A McNamara adviser tells his boss the same official lie about winning the war. Then, McNamara asks Ellsberg for his view, as he is the only person present who has actually seen fighting in Vietnam. Ellsberg says the war is not going well, and cannot be won. I think you are right, McNamara says. Then, the plane lands in the USA. Journalists ask: Mr Secretary of Defence, how is the war going? Very good progress on all fronts, McNamara replies. Ellsberg, just out of the plane, hears this lie; and becomes an anti-war activist. He decides that the secret Pentagon Papers, which expose the successive administrations’ untruths, should be published.
The film says the heroes were Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Though these two indeed made the correct decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, in spite of threats by the Nixon administration, as this review says, neither Graham nor Bradlee were overall unblemished characters.
The film also mentions there were connections between the Washington Post and the political elite: Katherine Graham was a personal friend of Robert McNamara, who advised her on appointing Post directors. Ben Bradlee had been a personal friend of President Kennedy. Connections, damaging the possibilities of criticizing government policies.
This Spielberg film correctly points out that all US presidents, from Truman to Nixon, lied about the Vietnam war. But there are limits to its political criticism. Because this film was produced by 20th Century Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch?
The film has a happy end … well, a happy almost-end. The Supreme court of the USA decides that the Nixon administration is wrong to persecute the Washington Post and New York Times for espionage for publishing the Pentagon Papers, threatening their publishers and journalists with prison. The statement by Supreme Court judge Hugo Black, supporting press freedom, is read:
In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.
However, that happy end is not really the end. As the final scene of the film is about the burglary scandal at the Watergate building, ordered by Richard Nixon.
Unfortunately, it is doubtful whether the Washington Post and similar media will have the same courage now on the many Pentagon wars as they had in 1971 on Vietnam. The Washington Post and similar media today are even more linked to the economic and political establishment than they already were at the time of Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee. And the Supreme Court today, compared to 1971? President Trump has put a judge there, the founder and ex-president of an organisation calling itself ‘fascism forever’.