Film of our times
There’s a scene near the end of the film “The Post” that establishes firmly its connection to current events here.
The scene plays out mainly in shadow, where, through a window of the Oval Office, a silhouetted figure is talking on the phone telling someone that from then on, The Washington Post was to be banned from the White House. Not only was the Post to be kept away from press conferences, press briefings, ceremonies and other official functions, but even from weddings, receptions or gatherings.
This came soon after the Post, along with the New York Times, won a decision from the Supreme Court allowing both papers to publish the Pentagon Papers. These were an “academic study” tracking how a succession of administrations, starting with Truman and on through Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, allowed and even encouraged the escalation of American involvement in the Vietnam War. And the worst revelation was, as Daniel Ellsberg the military analyst who leaked the papers pointed out, the reason these American presidents allowed the buildup was because they did not want to reverse the tide until the United States and its allies won the war. In short, they didn’t want their policy to be judged a failure even if, fairly early on in the conflict, they realized the war was unwinnable.
“They allowed our boys to be shipped out to Vietnam and die there by the hundreds simply because they didn’t want to be embarrassed!” Ellsberg fumes.
Thus in 1971 he snuck out of the offices of the Rand Corp. several folders of what became known as the Pentagon Papers. He released them first to the New York Times, but when the Times was prohibited by a federal court from publishing any more portions of the Papers, it was the chance the Post’s Ben Bradlee saw to leap from a hometown “also-ran” paper to a national newspaper rivaling the NYT as America’s “newspaper of record.”
One thing remarkable in the saga of the Post and the Pentagon Papers is how both Bradlee and Katherine Graham, the Post’s owner, had to overcome the ties of friendship with key players in government who figured in the Papers. Graham and her late husband were close friends with the Kennedys and the Johnsons. Most important, she counted former defense secretary Robert McNamara among her closest advisers. McNamara had served under both Kennedy and Johnson and was an early architect of the Vietnam War. He had also commissioned the Pentagon Papers. And when the study first came out, he had asked for Graham’s help to counter the inevitable backlash.
Bradlee, on the other hand, was a confidant and advisor to Kennedy, being on hand to receive Jackie Kennedy when she arrived at the White House from Dallas, still wearing the pink suit splattered with JFK’s blood.
It was no small thing for both of them to turn their backs on their friends and leave them to the people’s judgment. But even more difficult was dealing with the possible repercussions especially from a vindictive president like Richard Nixon. It is with some satisfaction, then, that “The Post” closes with a scene showing how a security guard catches a group of burglars breaking into an office in a Washington hotel called Watergate.
The Nixon phone call sets off echoes of the recent Malacañang ban on Rappler reporter Pia Ranada and even Rappler boss Maria Ressa. It’s a tactic commonly resorted to by shortsighted and slighted presidents (remember the short-lived ban on Inquirer’s Juliet Labog-Javellana by an incensed Erap), and seems to signal the beginning of the end for the current Palace tenant.
True, director Steven Spielberg may have been alluding to the current testy relationship between Donald Trump and American media, but “The Post” has rich insights, too, for us Filipino journos. Reviewer Philbert Dy, observing that the movie seems to have been rushed into release, says that it may be because it is “a film that speaks directly of our times, in a world where government seems to be taking an increasingly adversarial posture against the press. It’s a story worth telling right now, even if the telling isn’t quite as perfect as it could be.”
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