Out and About (Sort of): “First Draft of History’ by Howard Freedlander

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The gripping movie, The Post, described and portrayed a historic time in American history in terms of pitting national security against freedom of the press. It did so in a fast-paced presentation of a courageous newspaper run by a publisher still tentative in her decisions, and a president determined to block publication of reports that described a war that had few moorings in truth.

Based upon the fraught publication of the highly classified “Pentagon Papers,” the much-heralded movie portrays a precedent-setting battle between a major newspaper and the White House. As one of the characters in the movies said, media coverages of daily news—whether local, state, national and international—represents the “first draft of history.” This initial documentation, later interpreted by historians, can be a sloppy one.

The Pentagon Papers detailed faulty and deceptive decisions about a divisive war that ripped apart our country. It remained undercover for a reason.

Daniel Ellsberg, a Defense Department military analyst, was a hero to many, a menace to others. He covertly removed the Pentagon Papers from the Pentagon, initiating a constitutional crisis.

The movie’s plot line was also about assumption of huge responsibility by a woman, Katherine “Kay” Graham, who had never been encouraged to believe she could be a business leader. She lacked confidence at first, patronized by men and highly respected by women…

Ironically, women’s issues were bubbling to the surface at the time., Kay Graham epitomized the struggle, as well as small but significant victories. She became a role model, as captured by a scene in the Supreme Court building during the hearing about the legality of publishing the Pentagon Papers.

Steven Spielberg, a renowned director, is a genius in telling history in a remarkably accurate and dramatic way. He is an accomplished storyteller, using an exacting camera, superb script and world-class cast to seek and achieve commercial and artistic success. Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies and Schindler’s List are among his best works for this viewer.

The gutsy publication of the Pentagon Papers came amidst the conversion of the family-owned Washington Post into a public corporation dominated by men obsessed with the possible degradation of value (stock price) spurred by a constitutional crisis over the strength of the First Amendment. Kay Graham overcame the “bankers’” objections.

Tom Hanks was an aggressive, ambitious, take- no prisoners Ben Bradlee, the Post’s combative executive editor. Meryl Streep portrayed a tentative, frightened and insecure Kay Graham who grew mightily into her role as a publisher imbued with class and steely determination. Her presence on the screen evolved as her confidence increased.

For full disclosure, I read Mrs. Graham’s Pulitzer-prize winning autobiography, Personal History, some years ago and came away impressed with her startling candor. She was easy to admire and respect.

To state the obvious, Hanks and Streep are premier actors whose range of cinema characters is astounding. They never fail to capture the essence of their roles and an audience’s rapt attention.

The news operation as portrayed in the movie resonated with tension, creativity and single-minded attention to news gathering and dissemination. The newsroom wreaked of an unquenchable thirst and hunger for newsworthy information; the “budget” meetings (selecting top stories) accurately portrayed competition between string-willed editors and the press and composition rooms (still using lead type) reflected deadline pressure.

Scenes in the movie brought me back to my newspaper days when I often stood by the presses to await my paper, particularly if I thought it was a good one. It was exciting watching an inanimate printing press produce a living document that could affect readers’ lives and connect a community.

The movie absolutely captivated me. Did it portray Nixon as a manipulative and vengeful president prone to misrepresentation? Yes. Was Ben Bradlee careless and ruthless, determined to situate the Post as comparable to the New York Times? Yes. He was reckless, driven to impose his will on the Post.

Some might draw parallels between Nixon and Donald Trump in light of their views of the media and the First Amendment. Nixon was paranoid, insecure and intelligent. Certainly, our current president has similar traits, lacking, however, Nixon’s keen intelligence and in-depth curiosity.

Freedom of the press remains a battleground, unfortunately,

Evident creative flaws in the movie were not readily apparent to me. One obvious criticism of the content might be the lack of appreciation of the government’s argument against the release of stolen classified documents that showed the Vietnam War to be rife with the deception that resulted in the loss of 58,000 American lives.

The movie posited the use of stolen documents was justified by the light placed upon corrupt government decisions. That might be so, but that can become troublesome, leading to Edward Snowden’s release of classified documents/codes to Wikileaks regarding because he disagreed with U.S. foreign policy.

Arrogance was present on both sides, the Post and the White House, during the Pentagon Papers episode. Though former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and probably Richard Nixon knew that success in Vietnam was wildly exaggerated, they didn’t want to admit failure. And though Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee knew they were on thin legal ice, they proceeded in the name of the First Amendment.

It’s important not to hide shoddy journalism behind the veil of the freedom of the press; fortunately, that was not the case here.

Spielberg’s direction focuses on historic authenticity while ensuring the drama is commercially appealing, even spellbinding. He’s one of the best.

Eating popcorn almost seems disrespectful. Spielberg gains and keeps your rapt attention.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

Letters to Editor

  1. Thank you, Howard – and freedom of the press remains our anchor today.

  2. I was enjoying Howard Freelander’s opinion of this movie until he decided to insert a comparison of Donald Trump to Richard Nixon in the middle of it. Donald Trump has no prob lem with the 1st Amendment. Inserting this political comment in the middle of the article on the movie was highly inappropriate.
    Nixon was paranoid (for good reason), insecure and intelligent. However, Donald Trump is not paranoid or insecure. As to intelligence his I.Q. puts Nixon to shame along with the majority of other Presidents. His curiosity is unlimited.

    • Sarah K. Porter says:

      Dear Ms. Denton, Trump’s IQ score — has it been published? For that matter, was Nixon’s published? If so please share those scores and cite your sources.

      It’s widely reported from multiple sources (including those inside the WH) that Trump does not read and relies on right-wing cable tv as his primary source of information. So can your please provide concrete examples of Trump’s “unlimited curiosity” as it is reflected in his efforts to understand and meet complex domestic and global challenges (economic, environmental, security, etc.)?

      Thank you.

  3. Thanks for checking them out. I hope you find a pair you love soon Lisa! 🙂

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