Print the Legend

One scene in The Post, Steven Spielberg’s 2017 love letter to the American newspaper, happens twice. Near the beginning of the film, someone leaves a mystery package, a shoebox wrapped in brown paper, on a reporter’s desk. The journalist undoes the twine, tears off the paper, lifts the lid. The second time around, it’s a crate, but again we see hands removing the twine and lifting the lid, faces peering inside. It’s like watching an unboxing video on YouTube—those vaguely soothing, vaguely creepy clips of strangers methodically opening a Kinder Egg or unpacking an iPhone—except the secret revealed here is that the government lied about the Vietnam War.

The Post, reportedly rushed to completion in just nine months, is the latest entry in what is now a recognizable genre of heroic-journalism movies. Like the superior Spotlight, winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2016, The Post reflects a certain idealized vision of the press—the media’s best version of itself. The film, which concerns the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, is set in a newsroom burnished to a romantic sheen. Meryl Streep, wearing a caftan and elongating her vowels in full grande-dame mode, is the paper’s publisher, Katharine Graham. Tom Hanks is the gruff yet avuncular editor Ben Bradlee. (America’s parents!)

Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, Michael Keaton as Walter V. Robinson, and Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes in Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, 2015.
Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, Michael Keaton as Walter V. Robinson, and Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes in Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, 2015. Participant Media/First Look Media/Anonymous Content

In Spotlight, the action takes place in the early 2000s, on the brink of the internet era. The film, based on the story of the Boston Globe’s 2002 exposé of child sex abuse by Catholic priests, is a celebration of the kind of analog reporting that digitization has since made obsolete. The characters consult yellowed news clippings, examine black-and-white photographs, scribble with cheap ballpoints in spiral-bound notebooks, ring doorbells in the rain, even call people on the phone without warning them by text first. When they make a breakthrough in the investigation by laboriously cross-checking the names of individual priests against parish records, there is a wistful if unspoken acknowledgment that a computer could do all this in a fraction of the time.

The emphasis in these movies is on the materiality of the evidence: battered brown accordion files, aged manila envelopes, beat-up messenger bags. In The Post, the camera lingers on the black leather briefcase in which Daniel Ellsberg smuggles the four-thousand-page US-Vietnam relations report out of RAND to photocopy at night. Spotlight likewise wrings drama from the reproduction of physical documents: When the copy room at the courthouse closes early, Mark Ruffalo offers the clerk all the money in his wallet to reopen it—about $80.

A pivotal sequence in each film features a reporter ferrying vital documents from one place to another. These scenes combine an old story, that of the messenger bursting in with news of the victory at Marathon, with the more modern dream of being important enough to upgrade your travel arrangements. In Spotlight, Ruffalo hurries out of the courthouse, carrying the sealed records that prove the church hierarchy’s knowledge of the abuse, and splurges on a cab back to the newsroom—public transit isn’t fast enough. In The Post, the crate containing the files gets its own airplane seat. How to measure the value of a secret? These films offer the following answers: by how much space it occupies. By how much time it takes to transmit. By how much money people are willing to spend to obtain it. In The Post, we see reporters literally staggering under the weight of the Pentagon Papers. A big secret needs a big crate.

In both cases, the secret is something that’s not entirely secret. Even before the investigation begins, everyone in Spotlight is uneasily aware there’s a problem in the church. And who in 1971 was shocked by the revelation that the US was losing the Vietnam War? In these films, the secret has less to do with the facts themselves—it’s more about the betrayal or suppression of facts by those in power, a trickier message to convey. Spotlight suggests a sense of group complicity by showing the Globe’s male reporters at a Red Sox game in minor variations on the same button-down shirt: blue, white, blue with white stripes, white with blue stripes. The film’s understated point is that it takes an outsider—in this case, Marty Baron, the paper’s new editor, unmarried, Jewish, a baseball hater—to challenge a hierarchy of enforced silence. The Post replaces this gentle moral intuition with a parable of free-market competition. Freedom of information is safeguarded by the paper’s rivalry with the New York Times, which spurs the underdog to print the Pentagon Papers after the Times has received an injunction from the Nixon administration. The risk Bradlee and Graham take in defying the president is rewarded by increased sales. In case we didn’t get the point, it is underlined by a scene of Bradlee’s daughter selling lemonade, Ivanka-like, to her father’s employees as they frantically collate classified documents in his living room. The invisible hand at work!

Can a movie about the news avoid a sequence of tomorrow’s papers triumphantly shuttling through the printing press? In line with its general air of restrained professionalism, Spotlight offers only a brief version of this obligatory scene. Spielberg, by contrast, shoots it like the invasion of Normandy: the dawn light, the Washington Post trucks barreling out of the warehouse to the strains of heroic music, the bundled papers flung onto the street like soldiers parachuting behind enemy lines. We watch as the essence of news is condensed, refined, packaged, and distributed. Finally, the logical end point of the fantasy, which neither film can resist: the satisfaction of delivering a copy to your adversary, represented in The Post by Nixon and the newspaper vending machine at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Significantly, both films break off right before the news is actually read, leaving the response to the imagination, and skip ahead to show the impact of the bombshells. Spotlight ends with the phones ringing—victims of abuse who have read the Globe’s story and have their own to report. The Post closes with some heavy-handed foreshadowing: news of a break-in at the Watergate and the image of a silhouetted figure in the Oval Office. The press has the power to bring down presidents. But facts—the individual secret, the published files, the exposure of corruption—are not weapons. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her essay on the Pentagon Papers, facts are contingent and therefore fragile. Because they could always have been otherwise, they are constantly in danger of being erased by the “organized lying” that tears the fabric of shared reality to shreds. The facts alone are not enough to save us.

Namara Smith is Bookforum’s senior editor.