f the making of Washington movies, there is no end. Kohelet said this in Ecclesiastes, I think. Or maybe it was Gene Shalit on the Today Show. It’s a truism in any case. Steven Spielberg’s latest entry in the genre, The Post, is for many Washingtonians the most powerful example in the long line. When the movie opened here in late December, there were reports of audiences cheering lustily and even dissolving in tears at the movie’s end, as if they were watching a speech by President Obama. The local paper ran news articles about it, along with numberless feature stories, interviews, op-eds, fact-checks, reviews, and reviews of reviews.
Which is excusable, I guess, since the movie is about the Washington Post. But then The Post is supposed to be about so many things. It’s about the First Amendment, depicting the agonies of the Post’s editor Ben Bradlee, and its owner, Katharine Graham, as they defy the Nixon administration to publish the top-secret Pentagon Papers. It’s about feminism and the personal evolution of Mrs. Graham from an insecure Georgetown socialite to Master of the Boardroom. It’s the story of the lonely courage of the leaker/whistleblower/traitor (your call) Daniel Ellsberg. It is also, so I read in the Post, a warning about the imperial designs of President Trump to smother a free press. And it’s been understood as a straightforward tale of political history, though the liberties Spielberg takes with his based-on-a-true-story are so extreme as to render it useless as a guide to what happened in the summer of 1971.
Running beneath it all is the motive that animates so many Washington movies: an impatience with the stuttering, halting processes of self-government. The wellspring from which the Washington movie flows is Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The plot is familiar to everyone. Mr. Smith, a small-town bumpkin played by Jimmy Stewart—talk about stuttering and halting!—is appointed by sinister political bosses to a vacant Senate seat, on the assumption that he will be easily manipulated, like a movie audience. Instead, Smith stumbles upon an illicit land deal and exposes the Senate as a den of thieves. His filibustering floor speech rouses a populist outpouring from an army of alarmingly cute children. By the end of the movie, Mr. Smith has restored the nation to its democratic ideals.
Capra intended his movie to be a hymn to those ideals, and for nearly 80 years that’s what audiences have taken it to be. It is no such thing. Mr. Smith seethes with contempt for the raw materials of democracy: debate, quid pro quo deal-making, back-scratching compromise—all the tedious, unsightly mechanics that turn democratic ideals into functioning self-government. In Capra’s telling, democracy can be rescued only by anti-democratic means. An appointed charismatic savior (he’s not even elected!) uses a filibuster (favorite parliamentary trick of bullies and autocrats) to release the volatile pressure of a disenfranchised mob (the great fear of every democratic theorist since Aristotle). From Mr. Smith to Legally Blonde 2, the point of the Washington movie is clear: Left to its own devices, without an outside agent to penetrate it and cleanse it of its sins, self-government sinks into corruption and despotism.
Steven Spielberg is the closest thing we have to Capra’s successor. Like all his movies, The Post has many charms: a running visual joke about Bradlee’s daughter making a killing with her lemonade stand threads in and out of the heavier moments like a rope light. On the other hand, his painstaking obsession with period detail often fails: A hippie demonstration against the Vietnam War looks as if it’s been staged by the cast of Hair. The set-piece speeches are insufferable, an icky glue of sanctimony and sentimentality. What we call the Pentagon Papers was a classified history of the lies, misjudgments, and incompetence of four presidents, from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson, ending in 1968. Sometimes the speechifying is directed at the malfeasance of these men, as when Bradlee bellows: “The way they lied—those days have to be over!”
Weirdly, though, the full force of the movie’s indignation is aimed at Richard Nixon. Historians might point out that Nixon wasn’t even president during the period covered by the Pentagon Papers. Intelligence officials told the president that the release of the papers would pose an unprecedented threat to national security. He ordered the Justice Department to sue to prevent the New York Times and the Post from publishing the top-secret material. In the movie’s account, this ill-judged if understandable response is equivalent to the official, strategic lies that accompanied tens of thousands of American soldiers to their deaths.
A particularly rich moment comes when Robert McNamara warns Mrs. Graham about Nixon’s capacity for evil. As Kennedy and Johnson’s defense secretary, McNamara was an early version of Saturday Night Live’s Tommy Flanagan, Pathological Liar: The Viet Cong are on the run! Yeah, sure, that’s the ticket! As much as anyone, McNamara, with his stupidity and dishonesty, guaranteed the tragedy of Vietnam. And yet here he is, issuing a clarion call to Mrs. Graham. “Nixon will muster the full power of the presidency, and if there’s a way to destroy you, by God, he’ll find it!” Later Bradlee compares Nixon to his predecessors: “He’s doing the same thing!”
Um, no. From his inauguration in 1969 onward, Nixon’s every move in Vietnam was intended to extricate the U.S. from the quicksand previous presidents had led us (and him) into. In this case, if in no other, Nixon was the good guy. He had nothing to lose, personally, from the publication of the Pentagon Papers, and maybe a lot to gain. After all, they demonstrated the villainy of his predecessors, not his own. (That came later.)
Yet the movie can’t entertain the possibility that Nixon could act on anything but the basest motives. He is a sinister presence. We see him through the Oval Office window, always alone, with his back turned, stabbing the air with a pudgy finger and cursing the Washington Post to subordinates over the phone. It’s actually Nixon’s voice in the movie, taken from the infamous tapes. Unfortunately, the actor’s movements don’t synchronize with the words; in such a somber thriller, the effect is inadvertently comic. It reminded me of watching the back of George Steinbrenner’s head in Seinfeld while Larry David spoke the Yankee owner’s dialogue. And Nixon was no Steinbrenner.
The most plausible explanation is that Nixon, in trying to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers, was doing what he said he was doing: his job. American voters had elected him to protect national security and, not incidentally, the prerogative of the president and the federal government to determine how best to protect it, including determining whether sensitive information should be kept secret. If he didn’t do his job the way voters wanted him to, they could get rid of him next time. You know, like in a democracy.
Ben Bradlee, Katharine Graham, and Stephen Spielberg, not to mention those teary audiences, have no patience with such niceties. As it happens, in the end, the Pentagon Papers were a bust. The sickening detail they disclosed deepened but did not broaden the historical record, and by all accounts their impact on national security was negligible. Those facts don’t alter the creepiness of The Post’s premise—that the antagonists of an elected regime are allowed to go outside the law when it suits their view of the national interest. Charismatic saviors (and few people were more charismatic than Ben Bradlee) can save democracy from itself, but only by ignoring the requirements of democracy. Spielberg continues the tradition of the Washington movie. The Post is Capraesque—in the only true sense of the word.