Flushing out government lies

IT IS EASY TO SEE why Steven Spielberg felt impelled to make The Post, his high-octane newspaper tale. Set in 1971, it delivers its messages with the balanced poise of an on-form prize fighter.

[Film poster]

The press is a vital counterweight to a dishonest executive. Democracy depends on journalists undertaking their work with dispassion and determination. Quality reporting is expensive and a free press is an asset whose well-being is easily compromised.

Speilberg's contemporary target is obvious, not that it is a film likely to convert those attracted to today's post-modern populism. For those of a progressive or liberal bent, however, it delivers with the emotional intensity of your team racking up a first-half derby-match hat trick.

Its plot is reasonably familiar. The Washington Post trailed its big New York rival on the story of a leaked government report revealing the lies of five President about Vietnam. When finally the paper had the opportunity to lead the way, owner Kay Graham and editor Ben Bradlee gambled everything to get the story out. The result was a tectonic shift in the Post's national reputation which laid the foundations for its dogged bravery with the Watergate exposés.

The film is a joy for its many punch-the-air moments, but there are plenty of well-delivered, but more subtle narratives.

It is a reminder of how newspapers were when most titles were productive entities in themselves. Back in the day, advertising, editorial, composition and printing often occupied successive floors of a single building. And even if you are young enough to mistake "hot metal" for a musical genre, Spielberg's backdrop is a treat. Paper copy is rushed between chain-smoking reporters; grizzled operators tap at vast composition machines; and when the presses finally roll, bundled papers fly out of an inky cathedral of moving paper.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

How different to today's hollowed-out shells, economically teetering in the hungry jaws of social-media giants, shorn of their printing and launching stories onto the internet with the limp fanfare of bedroom bloggers?

Indeed the critical importance of media ownership is perhaps the film's most significant undercurrent. Graham gambles the company to publish, risking the farm for a story. She does so against the advice of a chorus of grey men too swept up in their own importance to notice her intellect and courage.

Even in the early 1970s this approach is several times contrasted with that of Gannett (which owns UK publisher Newsquest), whose reputation then and now is for treating monopoly markets as cash cows.

The collaborative nature of journalism also runs through the plot. The Post's effort is clearly a team job, but no less important is what they pinch from the New York Times and the support they receive from other regional dailies when their splash appears.

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks deliver on the hype of their pairing in spadefuls and theirs are by no means the only quality performances. Bob Odenkirk, as assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian, in particular demonstrated depths far beyond those of his best-known role as crooked lawyer Saul Goodman.

I left this revivalist meeting of a film amid a like-minded throng charged with warm feelings of affirmation. The challenge for those of us who share its director's convictions, of course, is converting roused hearts into genuine resolve. Without that we may be close to the point where the only place to find a newspaper is in a period drama.


Separately, if you really are trying to remember whether it was Van Halen or Black Sabbath that popularised "Hot Metal", then seek out Linotype - The Film, available to stream on Amazon. Feature-length, it tells the story of Victorian inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler, the molten-lead typesetting machines he created and the 90 years during which they powered newspapers around the world. Featuring interviews, archive footage and an excellent technical explanation of technology, it does not quite compete with Spielberg for emotional impact. It is a charming glimpse into a world long gone but fondly remembered, nonetheless.