It doesn’t get much more ironic than a film which adopts a selective memory to look back on the history of journals of record. Sanjana Pegu explains.
The Post, one of the best picture nominees at this year’s Oscars, has been generally well-received by critics and audience alike. On the surface, there’s not much to dislike about this genial, feel-good movie with the mandatory heart-warming climax.
But as a citizen of the Global South, my main takeaway after watching it was how good Hollywood (and by extension, the US) is at twisting even those true narratives where Americans are the bad guys into one where their heroism, valour, and sense of honour are to be unabashedly celebrated.
That requires some serious talent in practising the “ignorance is bliss” maxim.
Note: Minor spoilers below
The movie, directed by a once competent Steven Spielberg, follows the events leading up to and after the publishing of the Pentagon Papers by The New York Times and the Washington Post. Focusing primarily on the then Post owner Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), it showcases the Nixon administration’s brazen attempt to muzzle the press into submission by preventing them from publishing these scandalous documents.
The message of this movie is simple – American press is free, fair, and speaks truth to power while politicians are bad because they lied about the Vietnam War. While not technically untrue, to a discerning viewer, there are major problems with this very simple narrative.
War is good when you are on the winning side
The movie’s main grievance with the war is that successive US Presidents lied about the country’s ability to win it which in reality, as their own analysis repeatedly suggested, was low to non-existent.
Quotes like “South Vietnam is a lost cause”, “We couldn’t win”, “Sending our boys to die there” are thrown around frequently by the main characters. However, at no point in the movie do the Vietnamese people feature in their outrage. The war was bad only because they were unable to win it. There was nothing about the millions of people who died in their own country because a foreign army decided to pulverize them with bombs and napalm.
The movie neatly sidesteps the reasons for going to war in Vietnam, and shies away from taking a hard look at America’s dangerous propensity to meddle in a country thousands of miles from its own border, about the morality and futility of war. None of these questions were addressed in the movie even as a throwaway remark, despite a treasure trove of resources that it could have called upon to examine these difficult aspects.
But this kind of whitewashing and cowardice from Hollywood is expected, banal even. Challenging the myth of America’s moral superiority and God-given rights to impose their ideals on another country is not something that their mainstream media and culture is particularly good at.
What they do well is valorise ordinary Americans and this is where the second problem arises. Almost every scene is focused on Streep or Hanks or both. Missing from action, for the most part, is the character of Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower whose actions precipitated the chain of events. We are hardly given a peek at his motivations, his dilemmas, his risks and braveries.
At a time when whistleblowers are being increasingly hounded by the powers that be (a legacy of the Obama years), by championing them and their importance in preserving government accountability and transparency, the movie could have tacitly rebuked the unbridled powers of past and current presidents but it chose to tiptoe around this elephant in the room.
The selected heroics of mainstream media
What the movie does spend an inordinate amount of time on is the friendly rivalry and general goodness and bravery of the two newspapers – the New York Times and the Washington Post. Viewers are led to believe that both staked their reputations and even their very existence by publishing these papers; that for them service to the nation was above serving the government.
But we already know this isn’t strictly true. Careful analysis in classics such as Manufacturing Consent by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky lay this truth to bare.
The media, while exposing the establishment’s many lies on its inability to defeat its enemies, pretty much toed the government’s ideological line on the legal and moral basis of the war. They were content to heckle the government for sending American troops to the battlefield but didn’t have the courage or interest in finding out why that battlefield existed in the first place.
The kind of righteousness attributed to these two hallowed newspapers takes on an even more hypocritical turn when one harks back to the not-too-distant past of the Iraq war and the highly misleading reports, downright lies, and the shameful cheerleading that both the Times and the Post freely engaged in.
In many ways, the Iraq war is the Vietnam war of our generation with more deadly unintended consequences such as ISIS. That much of the US media was complicit in the killings of thousands of Iraqis and American troops and that this horrific saga continues today, seems to have passed by the makers of The Post in their revered take on these two newspapers of record.
To be fair, to expect a nuanced and mildly fair take on American-led wars by Hollywood is foolish. What movies like The Post acutely demonstrate is the continual whitewashing, cultural imperialism, and denial of a country that, even after several decades, is unable to honestly grapple with the tough questions and lessons of the Vietnam war.
Spielberg reportedly made the movie in a record seven months, apparently as a reaction to Trump’s constant attempt to delegitimise mainstream media.
While there’s little sympathy for the monstrosity that is the current US President, what many Americans would do well to remember is that for much of the world, the monster that is US imperialism preceded him.
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