Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” may not have caught the Screen Actors Guild members’ fancy in the nominations announced earlier this week, but I imagine Oscar voters are going to see it as an irresistible chance to stick the post up Donald Trump’s anti-media campaign’s rump.
I am giving the SAG voters a pass on their missed opportunity. They had little time to consume all of the fine films force-fed through their eye holes in the last month. Members of the academy have a much more leisurely screening pace, not having to fill out their nomination ballots until, at the latest, Jan. 12. Unless Trump changes his ways between now and then (stop laughing and read on), they’re going to “Post”-up and await his Jan. 13 tweets.
If “The Post” comes up big in the Oscar nominations, as I expect it will, it won’t simply be because it throws shade over the current administration. It is a compelling movie in its own right, every bit as good as the 2015 Oscar winner “Spotlight,” which recalled the Boston Globe’s exposure of the sexual abuse of children by priests, and its subject is every bit as important.
“The Post” goes behind the newsroom scene in dramatizing how the Washington Post obtained and published the Pentagon Papers that were stolen from the CIA files by rogue agent Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 and which revealed how the government had misled and lied to the American people about our involvement in the Vietnam War.
The New York Times had beaten the Post to the story, but had only a fraction of what the Post got from Ellsberg, and the newspaper faced charges of treason from the government if it published. Executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), whose courage here and a few years later with Watergate made him an iconic beacon of journalistic purity, had to convince publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) to run with it.
It was no easy decision for her. The paper was about to close on a deal that would have infused the Post with much-needed operating capital, and her lawyers warned that the publication of the Pentagon Papers might squelch the deal, send the paper into bankruptcy and land her and Bradlee behind bars.
Graham, a socialite widow who succeeded her late husband as publisher, socialized with many of the government bigs who would be affected by the release of the Papers. Besides that conflict, she was caught between an aggressive Bradlee on one side, and a covey of doomsday-huffing lawyers and business executives on the other.
The drama may be heightened beyond the actual events as the minutes wound down toward the evening press run, but the stakes are no exaggerated at all. It is no spoiler to say that Graham did rise to the occasion and gave the order to publish, that the government was apoplectic, and that a Supreme Court different in makeup from the one we have today, ruled on the side of a free press.
Now, that freedom is being challenged on a daily basis by Trump and his allies in the White House, Congress and along the campaign trails. Roy Moore, the one-man pestilence that narrowly lost the Alabama senate race this week, echoed Trump’s attacks on the mainstream media while being goaded on by alt-right guru and empty whiskey bottle Steve Bannon.
Yes, these harsh sentiments come from a journalist, but I’m confident they are shared by a large majority of academy members who feel Trump is not only a threat to a free press but to their realm of the arts, which he has also vilified.
The timing of “The Post” is not a coincidence. Spielberg told the Hollywood Reporter that when he read the script, he did not intend to direct himself, but changed his mind. “I could not believe the similarities between today and what happened with the Nixon administration against their avowed enemies The New York Times and The Washington Post,” Spielberg said. “I realized this was the only year to make this film.”
When “The Post” is released on Dec. 22, it will prompt many thousands of inches of op-ed commentary and further allusions to Richard Nixon. Trump is not going to like those comparisons and if he stays in character, he will let Spielberg know it in no uncertain terms through his own vehicle of free speech — the twitterverse. I imagine Spielberg would love that. Being mean-tweeted by this president is no less an honor than making Nixon’s enemies list.
Be sure to make your Oscar nomination predictions so that Hollywood studio executives can see how their films are faring in our Academy Awards odds. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before nominees are announced on January 23.