Steven Spielberg said of his latest film, eleven months in the making, “This is the fastest film I ever made.” The reason? “The level of urgency to make the movie was because of the current climate of this administration, bombarding the press and labelling the truth as fake if it suited them…”

This, a fine prequel to All The President’s Men, is the true story of how secrecy and conceit dictated the pointless sending of thousands of young men to the hell of South Vietnam’s jungles; of how top secret documents revealing the true nature of the USA’s involvement were copied and handed over to The New York Times. These documents would later gain notoriety as The Pentagon Papers.

It is the story of how a frightened government tried to suppress the publication of these documents which stated clearly that the USA were absolutely aware of the futility of continuing with the war, and of the certainty of eventual defeat; and of the horrifying revelation that the policy of the US’s continuing involvement in an unwinnable conflict was entirely decided upon by four successive presidents, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, on the basis that the humiliation of a withdrawal would be too much to bear for the general public and more importantly, would damage the international reputation of their country. On this hubristic basis, the decision was made to continue exporting the cream of America’s youth as cannon-fodder.

The film opens in the jungles of Hau Giang Province, South Vietnam. It is late 1965 and Daniel Ellsburg, a government military analyst played by Matthew Rhys, is accompanying U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) on a fact-finding mission. During the return flight, in a discussion about the progress of the war, (a war which had continued for some thirty years), he confesses to McNamara that, as far as he could deduce, nothing appeared to have changed. McNamara replies cynically, “which means it’s getting worse.” At an airfield press conference after landing in the US, to Ellsberg’s dismay McNamara blatantly lies to the assembled journalists, claiming confidently, “It’s getting better.”

So it is a dismayed and furious Ellsberg who, still having government security clearance, decides to steal and make copies of classified information about the historical progression of the war and its likely outcome and pass them to his friends at The New York Times. And this is where the story which binds the film together begins; the story of a burning rivalry between two newspapers, The New York Times and the more local Washington Post. The Post at that time always lagged behind The Times when it came to journalistic scoops. Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, The Post’s hard-nosed editor and Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham, the first woman to publish a major US newspaper, succeed, in their first film together, in convincing us of their relationship. They have issues, they disagree on many points, but conflict is resolved when they get wind of an impending big story at The Times. As they slowly discover that the rival paper has the story of the leaked documents, they are joined by their determination in trying to get the information for The Post.

The blatant disregard shown by the US administration in trying to suppress the information published by the papers, threatening their very closure, sparks a chain reaction. Other newspapers eventually join the fray and the Supreme Court is called upon to make a historic ruling.

The comparison to the present is unavoidable. Spielberg points his camera periodically at a muttering, shadowy Richard Nixon, paranoid and brooding in his bugged office, believing himself to be all powerful. At those times the figure of Donald Trump is never far from our thoughts. This is a fascinating and gripping film with a great cast, and Spielberg’s nostalgic shots of a hot metal newspaper press in action really give a sense of exciting, competitive pace. My one reluctant criticism would be of the crowd scenes, the ones which were meant to illustrate the first stirrings of mass anti-Vietnam protest. The ‘hippie’ extras were about as convincing as Donald Trump’s hair, which many of them might have been better off with instead of those terrible wigs. And no amount of crowd marshalling can produce the effect of a real mob. You need numbers, and people who can do angry acting. Surely Mr. Spielberg, you can afford that?

I’m being picky. This is a great film, go and see it if you can.

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