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Steven Spielberg: selling The Post in a post-truth era

You don't have to be a fearless crusader for truth to work here (but it helps).

You don’t have to be a fearless crusader for truth to work here (but it helps).

Published in the Age on December 29, 2017

On the set of The Post, Steven Spielberg would often take out his phone and play visitors an audio clip of President Richard Nixon vowing to bar Washington Post reporters from the White House. “That’s how we’re ending the movie,” he’d tell them.

The President appears several times in the film, always seen from a vantage point on the lawn, framed by the windows of the Oval Office, creating the sense that we are eavesdropping on his telephone conversations. Journalist Neil Sheehan has published classified material exposing the government’s lies about the Vietnam War, and Nixon is furious: “People have got to be put to the torch for this sort of thing.”

The recordings weren’t in Liz Hannah’s original screenplay. Spielberg says they “helped the verisimilitude of the movie,” but their most important function is to underscore the parallel being drawn between Tricky Dicky and the current occupant of the White House.

Nixon secretly taped his conversations from February 1971 until July 1973. Although only the sections revealing his attempts to obstruct the Watergate investigation are well known, more than three thousand hours of audio has been released. Josh Singer, the screenwriter hired to fine tune Hannah’s script, homed in on the President expressing his loathing of the press, in particular the newspapers that printed damning extracts from the Pentagon Papers, a confidential forty-seven volume assessment of the Vietnam War.

“We started reading the logs of the Nixon tapes around the Pentagon Papers, and some of the characteristics of Nixon – you know, the vindictive nature, the paranoia, the lack of respect for rule of law or democratic values – they seemed somewhat familiar,” Singer says, and it’s clear to everyone in the room who he’s talking about. The Post is about Donald Trump and his Republican allies, and their attempts to discredit the media. The film-makers do not pretend otherwise.

“Freedom of the press in 2017 is standing on the edge of a chasm,” says Spielberg. “And I thought that the story of Nixon trying to stop the Washington Post’s constitutional right to publish these stories, and trying to abolish the fourth estate… there were some profound similarities.”

Hannah wrote the script last year, in the expectation that the USA would soon elect its first female president. She thought a story about Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s decision to run the articles, despite the objections of her male advisors, would resonate. It did, enough to hook producer Amy Pascal, then Spielberg and stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, but not for the reasons she expected.

“It was a story about a hostile administration determined to bring down two national newspapers, and stifle our First Amendment rights,” Spielberg says, “and I thought ‘gee, that pendulum has swung all the way back again, hasn’t it?’”

Spielberg and Hanks on set.

Spielberg and Hanks on set.

Trump hasn’t banned the Washington Post from the White House press pool yet, but the New York Times, CNN and Politico have all been shut out at least once, and at the daily briefing, right wing trolls Breitbart and Gateway Pundit are now the equals of NBC News.

For half an hour each day, the Press Secretary distorts the truth, manufactures outrage and tells lies: the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was the largest ever, millions of undocumented immigrants voted in the election, Hillary Clinton’s campaign colluded with Russia and Barack Obama had the phones tapped at Trump Tower. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has taken over from Sean Spicer, but the aggrieved tone is unchanged.

Last week, Sanders went on the attack, accusing journalists of “purposefully misleading the American people” on a regular basis. Her boss has called the media “a stain on America,” “among the most dishonest human beings on earth,” and “enemies of the American people”. Until very recently, a t-shirt reading “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” could be purchased at Wal-Mart.

Hanks plays the Washington Post’s editor, Ben Bradlee. When it’s his turn to field questions, he starts by quoting the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and assembly. “We all know there’s incredibly false, ridiculous, insane news out there,” he says. “But there’s also irrefutable truth… and if you’re going to put a curtailment on the ability to publish whatever you want to publish you’re not America anymore.”

The party line is that “this is not a partisan movie.” Singer points out that “the big liars” of the piece, sending kids off to die in the knowledge that the war cannot be won, are Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. “This movie’s a patriotic movie. I don’t think there’s any partisanship in this film at all,” Spielberg insists.

But this is 2017, and in the United States at least, there is no such thing as a non-partisan issue, least of all the role of the press in holding the powerful to account. To conservative website the Daily Wire, The Post is a “leftist propaganda film” that advances “the absurd notion that mainstream journalists are objective crusaders of truth.”

In a recent Pew poll, 83% of the Republicans surveyed said they think the media is biased. A Gallup poll, in June, found that only 13% of Republicans trust national papers to report the news fairly and accurately.

The week after Trump’s victory, Charlie Sykes, a conservative talk radio host, penned an op-ed for the New York Times spelling out the disastrous impact of the decades-long right-wing campaign against media bias, real and imagined. “We succeeded in delegitimising the media altogether,” he wrote. “We destroyed our own immunity to fake news, while empowering the worst and most reckless voices on the right.”

Right wing media attacked the film before seeing it (and after).

Right wing media attacked the film before seeing it (and after).

Last month, when the Washington Post revealed that Senate candidate Roy Moore had a history of preying on underage girls, 71% of Alabama Republicans said they didn’t believe the story, despite the newspaper’s thorough reporting and fact-checking.

This is a dangerous and unpredictable moment for the media, as old business models and certainties collapse. The “failing New York Times,” a regular Trump target, has three million subscribers, the most in its history, but more than half the country’s journalism jobs have disappeared in the last fifteen years, mostly in local newspapers that have closed down or will soon, drastically limiting the fourth estate’s ability to act as a check on corruption.

In The Post’s closing minutes, once Graham has made the momentous decision to publish, even the men loading stacks of newspapers onto vans seem energised and inspired. An editor reads Justice Hugo Black’s Supreme Court opinion in favour of the newspapers aloud – “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors” – and as Graham walks down the court steps, and the strings swell, young women look up at her with shining eyes. It is classic Spielberg, still “directing the audience with an electric cattle prod,” as he once observed of Jaws.

His film is a stirring defence of the media’s role in a democratic society. It casts journalists as heroes, in the vein of Spotlight and Good Night And Good Luck, and no doubt, like those movies, will be nominated for handfuls of Academy Awards. “The free press is a crusader for truth. To me that’s just a fact, not a partisan perception,” he says.

The Oscar judges may agree, but polls consistently show that a majority of Americans, Democrats included, do not. Many perceive journalists as deceptive and self-serving, like the protagonist of Shattered Glass, or Jake Gyllenhaal’s aspiring videographer in Nightcrawler, who is told by producer Rene Russo to “think of our newscast as a screaming woman, running down the street with her throat cut.”

Plenty of superb journalism is being produced in the Trump era, but there is also too much shrill commentary, and too many panels of people shouting over each other on cable news. At CNN, Jeff Zucker has said broadcasting so many Trump rallies in full was a “mistake” but also admitted that the President’s demagoguery is good for ratings. The New York Times has yet to own up to its Ahab-like obsession with Hillary Clinton’s emails during the campaign.

The morning after Roy Moore’s shock defeat in Alabama, the notion that the Washington Post’s reporting had made the difference circulated on social media, advanced primarily by journalists themselves. In defeat, the President changed the subject, returning to a favourite theme: “Wow, more than 90% of Fake News Media coverage of me is negative, with numerous forced retractions of untrue stories. Hence my use of Social Media, the only way to get the truth out. Much of Mainstream Media has become a joke!”

“There’s never been this kind of a smokescreen put between the public and the press,” says Spielberg. “I’ve never seen so much vitriol, and dogmatic entrenchment, and I’ve never seen such anger in my life, in politics.” His paean to the fourth estate may be simplistic, and it is certainly nostalgic, but he is justified in sounding the alarm.