Steven Spielberg and Amy Pascal’s movie The Post is a compelling depiction of the decisions made by Katherine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) to publish the Pentagon Papers in opposition to the Nixon administration, against the advice of her lawyers and investors, and in support of her news staff led by Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks). Two themes stand out: Freedom of the press against an ill-motivated government and the courage and insight of a very impressive woman, Mrs. Graham.
Like many documentaries, the movie was selective to fit a complex event into a two-hour film – to paraphrase Mrs. Graham’s husband, Philip, it was a rough draft of history. What was missing included the decisive Bazelon appeals court scene between Pentagon officials with a “top secret” supposedly contained in the Pentagon Papers, which the Administration forcefully argued supported non-publication, and the Washington Post lawyers and experts, highlighted by George C. Wilson’s decisive testimony. This deeper investigation of prior restraint and rule-by-facts is covered by Geoffrey Cowan’s 2008 play Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers and described by CBS's interview with George.
I had an insight from George, my father, that fit nicely with Spielberg’s movie, which I submitted to Pascal’s creative executive early in 2017. It fit nicely with movie scenes portraying the tension between Mrs. Graham and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara – though it may have been over-elaboration, given the already effective screenplay.
Here’s part of the bit I offered: “Every time Robert McNamara saw Katherine Graham, Secretary McNamara would jab his finger at her (I imagine at a high society Georgetown cocktail party) and say: ‘George Wilson is the worst reporter in this town.’ Mrs. Graham would turn, smile and say, ‘I know.’ (We like it that way, she'd convey.)”
Dad had a strong track record taking on the military and Pentagon on many counts, wrote sharply and critically about the Vietnam War, sometimes covering the front page of the Post with three stories of breaking news.
An amazing thing about Mrs. Graham, Dad later reflected, was that she never told Dad or others about Secretary McNamara's criticisms. She kept the newsroom from this undue or tilting influence. Mrs. Graham was extraordinarily decent.
In any case, please see The Post, an enlightening and hopeful film. You can purchase a copy of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers play on Amazon or learn more from this USC Annenberg web site.
-- originally published on Facebook on January 1, 2018
-- The Post movie -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Post_(film)
-- Top Secret (play): The Battle for the Pentagon Papers -- http://topsecretplay.org (USC Annenberg)
-- Top Secret (play/docudrama) on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Top-Secret-Battle-Pentagon-Library/dp/1580813879
-- CBS New article about George C. Wilson and Bazelon courtroom scene -- https://www.cbsnews.com/news/reporter-recalls-role-in-pentagon-papers-saga/
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