That the Vietnam War, from an American perspective at least, was a misguided, divisive and ultimately futile exercise is these days common theory. For those subscribing to this perspective, the new Steven Spielberg film THE POST (116 minutes) provides ample proof – while adding deceit, delusion and downright lying into the mix. For one President to mislead the American people over US involvement in Vietnam is bad enough, but when four successive administrations (those of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon) all cover-up, to varying degrees, the scale of military action in South East Asia it is hardly surprising the war still cuts deep into the American psyche.
The Post is not a Vietnam war film in the sense of Platoon or Born On The Fourth of July. It is the (largely true) story of the clandestine political machinations that take place from the mid-sixties to the early seventies, a period when the conflict costs thousands of lives through years when informed American military opinion has conceded it is a struggle from which the United States cannot emerge victorious, no matter how many troops they send to fight and die. Much of what the film portrays was borne out in the excellent television series ‘The Vietnam War’ (recently broadcast on BBC 4) and in a script which contains many emotive passages there is none more so than lines spoken by Military Analyst Daniel Ellsberg (played in a superbly downbeat way by Matthew Rhys): ‘Ten per cent (of the War) was fought to stop the spread of Communism, twenty per cent to help the South Vietnamese and seventy per cent to save face.’ In other words those at the top knew America was doomed to fail in this appalling struggle but nobody wanted to be the President who admitted defeat or at very least was seen to climb down – and how that must feel to the families of those whose perished long after any semblance of tangible success had disappeared we cannot begin to imagine.
Ellsberg is the first major character to appear, seen at the start going out with a platoon of GI’s who come under fire whilst on patrol in a Vietnamese jungle (here I will raise my only issue with the film, over a frame setting the province and date – June 1966 – is the song ‘Green River’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival. The song was popular with American forces in the region yet not released until 1969 – nit-picking I know but I do wish they would get these things right). He is already aware America is fighting a losing battle and disillusioned, even disgusted with the ongoing military build-up in Vietnam, not to mention the increasing causality rate, on his return home Ellsberg steals a welter of classified documents containing facts appertaining to how America has destabilised South East Asia in recent years and just as important, the general hopelessness of the situation in Vietnam. Over time he leaks these files to The New York Times who carry the exclusive story – much to the chagrin of main newspaper rivals The Washington Post, which bring Tom Hanks (playing Post Editor Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (in the part of Post proprietor Katharine Graham) into the story. Miffed they have missed out on such a huge scoop, Bradlee orders his reporters to lay their hands on some of these documents in order for The Washington Post to find their own angle but this creates conflict with Graham, who is about to float the paper on the Stock Exchange to shore up its ailing finances, with stories highlighting the deception carried out by one US Government after another, including the current Nixon administration, likely to discourage possible investors.
The Post finally find a source but just as they do Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell takes out an injunction against The New York Times preventing them from publishing any more extracts from the leaked documents, leaving The Washington Post with the dilemma of whether to publish what they had unearthed and the possibility of a costly legal battle with the Government which it could ill-afford or quash the most explosive political story they believed, at the time, The Post would ever carry – the ultimate decision on whether they should go to print left with Graham who comes under enormous pressure from those on both sides of the argument, knowing she must decide in favour of either the journalistic integrity of the paper or go with those holding the purse strings.
Hanks, Streep and Spielberg all perform their roles with the excellence we have come to expect and with a nod to All The President’s Men (for which it serves almost as a prequel), shows once again there is nowhere like a busy newspaper office in the 1970s in which to set a story of political intrigue, the atmosphere superbly generated by cigarette smoke, ringing telephones and the clatter of typewriter keys. After Graham is vindicated in her decision, by way of smart irony Spielberg closes the piece with a security guard stumbling upon a break-in at Democratic Party Campaign Headquarters. As that story unravels it is The Washington Post who uncover the full extent of how Republican party ‘advisors’ carried out covert-ops, cover-ups, smear campaigns and dirty tricks, following a trail that eventually leads back to Nixon in the Oval Office.
On discovering intruders on the premises, the guard telephones for the police – requesting they come to a building in Washington called Watergate.
NEIL SAMBROOK is the author of MONTY’S DOUBLE – an outstanding new thriller now available as an Amazon Kindle Book.