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Trump and Nixon vs the media

  • 17 January 2018


The Post (M). Director: Steven Spielberg. Starring: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood. 116 minutes

As America endures one of the most authoritarian and chaotic presidencies in its history, Richard Nixon has, for obvious reasons, been a recurring touchstone for many commentators. Just this week John Dean, the former White House attorney who played a central role in the Watergate cover-up and the subsequent investigation, was compelled in an interview with the UK Telegraph to describe Trump as even 'more dangerous' (because less competent) than Nixon.

Given the clear comparisons, it's no surprise Steven Spielberg pulled out all the stops to bring The Post out ASAP (he began work on it while completing post-production on his effects heavy blockbuster Ready Player One). One thing Trump has in common with Nixon is an antagonistic relationship with the media, and The Post takes as its focus Nixon's attempts to quash the publication of the leaked Pentagon Papers, with their damning revelations about America's role in Vietnam.

Several former New York Times journalists have objected to the film, claiming it focuses inordinately on the work of the Washington Post while downplaying the Times' role in breaking the story, for which the newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. They do have a point. The Times broke the story and set the stage for a legal showdown, while the Post entered the fray relatively late, after the Nixon administration had succeeded in obtaining an injunction against the Times.

At the same time the focus is sensible. For one, it establishes a sense of continuity between these events and Watergate, which the Post would uncover soon after. It functions as a kind of de facto prequel to All the President's Men, the 1976 film about the journalists who broke Watergate, which here serves as a tonal and aesthetic yardstick — even Hanks' portrayal of Post editor Ben Bradlee seems to channel Jason Robards' Oscar-winning performance as Bradlee in the earlier film.

Also, The Post isn't about the breaking of the story, per se. To the extent that it is a journalistic procedural in the tradition of ATPM, it follows Post journalist Ben Bagdikian's (Odenkirk) efforts to track down the Times' source and take up the torch that the Times has been forced temporarily to lay down. We see too the Post team sifting the thousands of pages of unsorted documents, grasping the threads and trying to weave