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JACK WEATHERLY: ‘The Post’ is a retelling of history to shape the present

JACK WEATHERLY

What’s the “back story” on the recent release of “The Post,” what amounts to a prequel of “All the President’s Men”?

Good question.

A newsroom has always been a stage that lends itself to dramatization.

“The President’s Men,” released in 1976, is still a terrific movie, with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing Woodward and Bernstein in their landmark Watergate investigative reporting that brought down the Nixon White House.

“Spotlight,” which won the Best Picture Oscar in 2016 for its portrayal of The Boston Globe’s work exposing the institutionalized sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests.

But “The Post” is a story more about publisher Katharine Graham and her professional relationship with Executive Editor Ben Bradlee.

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, two of America’s biggest stars, are cast in those roles.

Which raises the question: who plays Nixon? Well, no one. He doesn’t merit a role.

But the focus is on someone who does not appear in the movie – couldn’t have appeared as a character because this was the early ‘70s.

Donald Trump’s presidency wasn’t even a gleam in the eye of the budding real estate magnate in his early 20s.

But for the current overheated generation this is Nixon-as-Trump. Or Trump-as-Nixon.

A sort of roman a clef, Hollywood style.

Director Steven Spielberg said he jumped at the chance to make the movie because he wanted to say something about Trump, who has nothing good to say about the news media, except for Fox. Get it?

Streep may have had a personal interest. After all, Trump, in one of his incessant tweets, said she was an overrated actress, after she had criticized him.

The result is an attempt at reshaping history, with an eye to affecting present and future perceptions of reality.

And the rush to judgment – as any good newspaperman knows – leads to mistakes and, often, collateral damage.

New York Times alumni from the Pentagon Papers era voiced scathing criticism of the movie’s concept, which focuses on the paper that followed the Times’ lead on the story about the leaking of Department of Defense papers showing that the government was lying to the citizenry about how the Vietnam war was faring.

The Washington Post came into its own soon thereafter when Woodward and Bernstein broke their own huge story, Watergate, which spawned a whole generation of aspiring journalists (this writer included).

Interestingly, Graham did not even merit a role in “All the President’s Men.”

But in “The Post” she is the reluctant publisher who is goaded by Bradlee to act her role and back her news organization.

Katharine Graham’s husband, Phil, had been publisher (he married the owner’s daughter) until his death in August 1963, three months before the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

To the movie’s credit, there is a scene in which Katharine, confronts Ben about his younger days as a reporter when he crossed the line of objectivity in his coverage of Kennedy, a close friend with plenty to hide.

Historical authenticity scores some points in small ways. The tabletop television sets in the newsroom are turned off after “breaking news” interrupts regular programing in the days before 24-hour cable TV coverage and eons before personal computers and cell phones, much less smart phones and social media. Smoking was everywhere and incessant. And type was set in lead on linotype machines.

Yes, technology and society have changed remarkably from the time in which this movie is set.

But some things have not. And never should. Like getting the facts and getting the story and getting it right. Those are standards that should never change.

Anyone who says otherwise is just making up stuff.

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.

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