"A Rough Draft of History": Steven Spielberg's "The Post"

If the news is, as the conclusion of Steven Spielberg’s The Post proposes, “the first rough draft of history,” then the film, released several decades after the story (1966-1971), would presumably be a polished revision of great hindsight. Spielberg complicates this by channeling a feverish newsroom pace, setting The Post to “print” (Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski remain celluloid holdouts) in a matter of months, principle photography beginning in June 2017 and its first exhibition for critics unveiled in November. The project is a creative response to the autocratic rhetoric of President Trump, with Nixon’s media blacklists of the 70s treated analogously to the current insidious regurgitation of “Fake News,” and the heroism of the anomalous woman in a male-dominated structure, in this case Washington Post owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), being a figural response to the president’s misogynistic reputation. The Post was completed and released amidst #MeToo, the movement sparked by several important publications running stories about the behavior of powerful figures like movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and actor Kevin Spacey, fortuitously reinforcing the film’s bid for social relevance. As the director probably treats Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) as his alter ago—a man seeking stories and setting them into words/images under the auspices of corporate investors like a powerful director in the studio system—The Post wonders about authorship’s relationship with history, as both draft and revision.

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Recounting how Graham, Bradlee, and The Washington Post published top secret documents leaked by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) after the Nixon White House used legal means to stop The New York Times from doing the same, The Post is assembled with a reporter’s slapdash swiftness—its Vietnam opening has the “typo” of a Creedence Clearwater Revival song not released for another three years. Spielberg’s authorial stamp makes no qualms about furtively fashioning truth more than reporting it, and that while our reality is assembled by communicative systems with self-interested oversight (be it authored by White House press briefings, The Washington Post, or 20th Century Fox), the slide into ignorance—if not autocracy—is held off by creativity’s ongoing dialectic: reporting, revising, reporting the response, and so on, words whirled without end, requiring readers as much as authors to make them matter. As a film so urgently assembled can’t help but reach out and address current events, Spielberg holds a mirror to Trump’s infamous hair and faux tan with a motif of cosmetic rugs on his actors’ heads, as America’s historical “bright shining lie” is juxtaposed with the “lie” of art, from which the audience discerns poetic truth: journalism is reformatted in the narrative apparel of novelistic fiction.

Modern day news cycles of excessive and disposable information are here intimated in their print media ancestors, and it’s Spielberg’s talent as a visual storyteller, making the walls of publishing institutions, business boardrooms, and courts come alive and seemingly swallow the restless writers and statesmen within, that highlights his message to—at least mostly—transcend sententious traps of unchecked doggerel endemic of such hasty construction. The Rand Corporation fluorescents flicker as whistleblower Ellsberg smuggles out the “Pentagon Papers,” and later the desk of Post reporter Ben Bendickian (Bob Odenkirk) rumbles as the printing press sets the story to ink and paper: The Post is suggesting how our physical reality is built on an apparatus of information, perhaps analogous to the rumbling of a multiplex screening The Post in 2018, where quiet dramas are often accompanied by the aural indigestion of destructive spectacles in neighboring auditoriums. Considering the flows of information ready to smack us the moment the audience leaves the theater, The Post is less a simple liberal-agenda response to Trump (though, as with Prego, “it’s in there,” and sometimes egregiously) than a fuller realization of how information works its way through us, and how we should follow up reading with discerning, engendering a conscientiousness of the perspectives constructing what we read. A major film like The Post sees its Oscar campaign play out with laughable wigs, accents, and shameless excursions (e.g. the so-bad-you-have-to-admire-it shot of sundry women looking at Graham glowingly after she exits the Supreme Court), and yet directed and performed with enough verve by Spielberg, Hanks, Streep, Odenkirk, Rhys, Michael Stuhlbarg (as New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal), et al, that we’re sucked into a narrative as much as we’re skeptically alert to its artifice and machinations. The drama features true-life footage of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson giving theatrical speeches as their rhetoric is undermined by what’s written in the Rand documents, and Nixon’s archived recordings intermittently play out as a chorus alongside an almost comical voyeuristic representation of the Oval Office (some viewers have mentioned its similarity to Seinfeld’s George Steinbrenner characterization).

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The first thing Spielberg shows us is a dressed-up historical recreation, his Vietnam recreated in an American shooting location, but suturing us with the most obvious of aural tells, John Fogarty vocals: the director places us exactly where he wants us, the author of illusions directing his readers as much as he directs the actors and cameras. Soldiers apply camouflage makeup before “long hair “ Ellsberg, bound to his typewriter, joins them. In the chaos of combat, hand signals and phonetic codes struggle to impose order. Sounds of gunfire dissolve into a helicopter which fades into Ellsberg’s pounding keyboard, a unifying bridge of tools willfully translating ideas into action: political ideologies, military control, and literature, concluding with the flashing snaps of press cameras on U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) offering the American public the opposite of Ellsberg’s information, and what Spielberg’s camera has heretofore represented in McNamara’s company. Consequently, as the film cuts forward from1966 to 1971, America is still hopelessly embroiled in war. Ellsberg’s incipient role as the “author” of an apocalyptic counter narrative is decorated by his march with the Top Secret documents through a hallway decorated with movie posters, George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1968)—one of the era’s definitive Romantic refashionings of true events—figuring prominently, signaling Spielberg’s own authorial intent.

The cosmetics of speech and romanticized historical representation are coupled with a motif of hypotheticals hovering over every movement in The Post, as the prosecution of the news and leaking documents points to the possibility of catastrophe in the overseas conflict (as we heard during the Iraq War from the Bush II Administration, dissent “emboldens the enemy”), or how the predication of this conflict was founded on a Domino Theory of communist expansion. Ellsberg’s illegal disclosures necessitate the hypothesis of his going to prison in order, something he accepts without hesitation, as the war drags on not because of economics, foreign policy, and ideology, but because the all-too-human factor of humiliation (as Nixon infamously put it, “Peace with honor.”) When Post’s lawyers like Roger Clark (Jessie Plemons) get involved, conflicting rhetorical scenarios determine courses of action. The newspaper can postpone publishing and ask for permission (or as Bradlee interprets it, “landing the Hindenburg in a lightening storm,” aka “the shittiest idea I’ve ever heard”), or asserting its constitutional right to publish, which, as Bradlee makes clear, is simply to publish, the idea in accord with action. The first draft of history is reducible to one word—Yes or No—spoken by Graham, herself having to deal with the “foreign language” of hypotheticals involved in her company’s stock value, the specifics of which she has trouble articulating during a meeting with her intimating and condescending male peers. Her preparatory homework in corporate lingo aids her climactic real-world publishing decision, as what’s happening now fits the description of something “catastrophic”: the existence of a free press.

 Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) in "The Post." 

Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) in "The Post." 

Spielberg’s film is itself filled with airy prolix that dramatically reinforce Graham’s decision, like the grating doggerel in a dozing scene with Graham’s supportive daughter Lally (Alison Brie) reading some inspiring words for mom. The next day, the printing machinery comes together and the type-blocks wetted with ink, the hypothetical mission having precedence over the vagaries of legal language. Action is applied and the machine rolls out cosmetic verbiage to be read and interpreted by the public. Other newspapers, dedicated to the welfare of a free press, run the news in solidarity. Ellsberg comes out and puts a face on television alongside the published words, explaining that he’s aligned against a mindset asserts—not in specific words but discernable actions—“I Am the State.” Nixon’s foolhardy determination to control language extends to his office, his retaliatory plans caught in the garbled maze of his own prolix architecture. The Post’s rather cutesy finale set in the Watergate Hotel reminds us of how the news will continue to unwind alongside history, soon to be dramatized in Alan J. Pakula’s now-classic All the President’s Men (1976), where Bradlee is portrayed by Jasob Robards—a major chapter in American history quickly followed by one in Hollywood’s historical representation.

The implied resolution with Nixon caught in his own sticky web of words, implying recurrent cycles of journalism and justice, would have the viewer wondering of the inevitable outcome for our current President, frothing without a muzzle on social media, though as of yet, in the regurgitated noise of the present day news cycles which take a similarly clamorous role in cyberspace, this remains yet another hypothetical, thus far catalogued in the imagination, but also, when we consider shallow smart-phone processing on the subway vs. The Post’s tactile newspapers exempt of hyperlinks, how the word, as related to deepening cognition on the part of readers, has new measurements, if any. Or as a Saturday Night Live sketch starring Michael Che as reporter Lester Holt and Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump demonstrates, for example, that the chief executive may as well out himself for wrongdoing on national television and still “nothing matters anymore.” The ingenuity of rhetoric, such as Spielberg has lately been highlighting in a “Civics Trilogy” with masterful wordsmiths Tony Kushner (Lincoln) and the Coen brothers (Bridge of Spies), is now gauche cosmetic application, smeared in the repetitions of “Crooked Hillary,” “Little Marco,” “Sloppy Steve,” “Low Energy Jeb,” “Lyin’ Ted,” etc., conditioning the thought—surely as much as that aberrant John Fogarty vocal shapes a Pavlovian response in informing a sense of time—of a large segment of the population, the top of a Rhetor’s Dunghill in which many of our lauded hashtags—regardless of political orientation—are a subset (it’s apposite that Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s zeitgeisty work on The Post is the least of the "Civics Trilogy" screenplays, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies representing some of the best writing Spielberg’s ever worked with).

 "Nothing matters." Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump, Michael Che as Lester Holt, recreating history on "Saturday Night Live." 

"Nothing matters." Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump, Michael Che as Lester Holt, recreating history on "Saturday Night Live." 

Yet Spielberg breathes life into the flagrant artifice of recreated news office intrigues and the vaunted Supreme Court, where lawyerspeak’s hypothetical abstractions vie for real world materialization and movement. The thick rumble of printing equipment, thuds of newspaper stacks thrown from moving vans, and crackle of turning pages insist on the ends of rhetoric meeting with the firmament, movie romance realized with weight and brusqueness such as we may feel in the speedy delivery of a production replete with conspicuous wigs and vocal affectations that, perhaps if it was all more polished, might brush right by us, releasing the viewer from any orientation regarding what the filmmaker sees as an urgent matter. Modeling his work on Graham’s definition of the news, Spielberg wants this historical hindsight to feel like a rough draft. But following “nothing matters,” thudding newspaper stacks, like clanging celluloid film cans, have abrogated space in deference to vaporous static, information accruing and replicating and manipulated, weightless phenomena producing less discourse than noise, the immaterial fuzz in which the current President holds dominion.

Still, this theme has been pertinent to Spielberg’s work for decades. Consider the fragility of history in The Empire of the Sun and Schindler’s List (Ralph Fiennes’ SS officer telling his soldiers that a particular district’s Jewish legacy “never happened”), the artificial simulacrums in AI: Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, and the troubling ascendancy of CGI “uncanny valleys” toppling perennial mythologies in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The BFG, and the upcoming Ready Player One, where historical context and reality is abandoned for cyber indulgences and nostalgia’s tacky personae. Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) uses embellished anecdotes and abstraction to spin his rhetoric and affect real world change, and the march to light in Bridge of Spies demanded “indulging in fictions,” reading between duplicity’s lines to discern truth and solve the complicated riddle of a basic prisoner exchange where the two bodies involved may or may not contain information weighing on foreign policy and catastrophic war.

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“It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks, you know what you did,” James Donovan (Tom Hanks) stresses to freshly released pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) in Bridge of Spies, the public’s derisive presumptions of Powers at odds with his private experience and knowledge. The idea is a key variable in Spielberg’s ongoing dialectic of human beings and society—as in subject and object, his films stressing the circulation from the eyes to the heart to the head—where we would be mindful not to lose sight of ourselves, despite the ineluctable heightening signal-to-noise increasingly comprising the exoskeleton of daily life. The Post’s themes of rhetoric are reinforced by its emphases on image (flagrant recreation and artifice, the kitsch of fawning ladies outside the Supreme Court) and sound (bullets to helicopter propeller to typewriter), drawing us into a historical rough draft where the revisions are produced by our own hindsight as conscientious and activated viewers and citizens, alert to how the gross fashioning and representation of history doesn’t necessarily happen decades after the actual events, but are rather concomitant with them, indeed moving exponentially faster than the world’s most powerful director working at top speed.