The run time for Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” is one hour and 56 minutes. It’s always challenging to tell a complicated story based on historical events in the span of several hours, so director Steven Spielberg faced some difficult choices that are common in the filmmaking process, particularly with historical dramas. What are the critical elements of the story that need to be included? What do you leave out? How much dramatic license is appropriate with respect to timeline, events, characters, and dialogue?
“The Post” is a solid historical drama that tells the story of the Washington Post’s 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers. Much of the film works well in Spielberg’s capable hands, but fact-checking reveals some weak points in the narrative as well.
Spoiler Alert: Key plot developments will be discussed
The film received some criticism for focusing on the Washington Post as opposed to the New York Times in light of the fact that the Times was first in publishing the Pentagon Papers. But the story here revolves around the challenges faced by the Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham, in deciding whether to publish in the context of an initial public offering of stock by the Post’s parent company, The Washington Post Company. Ben Bradley and the newsroom pushed for publication, while company attorneys argued that the legal risks were too great.
Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks as Graham and Bradlee lead an excellent cast that performs as expected. Spielberg weaves the story around this central conflict to create a legal thriller that helps illuminate many of the big issues of the time. The Pentagon Papers revealed that the government had not been truthful with the public about the Vietnam War through numerous administrations, and the Nixon administration wanted to prevent the report from being revealed to the public, even though the report didn’t cover the Nixon administration. A good summary of the dilemma faced by Graham can be found at Biography.com.
Spielberg brilliantly recreates the setting in 1971 as expected. In a positive review on History.com, Heather Ann Thompson notes the following:
Because the filmmakers did not just rely on props, but had really learned about the newspaper industry of the 1970s, one can almost smell the ink and touch the hard blocks of typeface used to produce papers back in the day. One almost feels the air move as papers—blaring headlines about the Pentagon Papers—snake up to the roofs of the factory on their belts.
And yet, to make a movie that will truly impact an audience, it takes a great deal more than merely reproducing the sights and sounds of an earlier decade—no matter how believably. Somehow filmmakers must also persuade viewers that the historical event they are now rendering is important to know now.
Yet the film has some flaws that are revealed by fact checkers. You can refer to the following links for more information to learn more about where the film departs from the historical record and where creative license was taken: Politifact.com, Time.com, ChicagoTribune.com, and Historyvshollywood.com.
One of the more troubling fact-checks involves the role of Robert McNamara, a close friend of Graham and one of the principle architects of the Vietnam War who commissioned the report that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers.
In the film, McNamara pleads with Graham not to publish, explaining that the study was for posterity, written for academics in the future. He argued that the news papers can’t be objective and he preferred that the study not be made widely available until it can be read with some perspective.
But as Politifact explains, they couldn’t find any record of that conversation happening. Politifact also cites statements from Graham that McNamara actually encouraged the Times to go ahead and publish. McNamara confirms this in his own memoir. Graham’s relationship with McNamara was central to the narrative in the film, and the inclusion of this conversation hurts the credibility of the film.
Writers and directors often take creative license to move a story along. Composite characters, events or conversations are created in order to help tell a story. But when dealing with historical events, creators should stay true to the motivations of historical figures.
Overall, the film is worth seeing. But as with most historical dramas, it helps to consult other sources for a more accurate explanation of events.