Before you do anything today, check your schedule and cancel everything on it. At least block out some time at either 2, 5 or 7:45 p.m. I want you to go to the Cameo Cinema and see Steven Spielberg’s latest film, “The Post,” which has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture.
C’mon, Big Spender, play hooky today and spend $8 for a seat at the delightful Cameo Cinema to catch this movie. If you bring your own bag or bowl for popcorn, it will set you back three bucks and a medium Coke is just $4.25.
And then sit back and be entertained as you learn about hard-nosed journalism in our nation’s Capital in the early 1970s.
The Post, of course, is The Washington Post, the newspaper that made its fame and fortune for breaking the Watergate story, which eventually led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation from office. Watergate was a minor and bungled burglary at the Democratic National Headquarters in the months before the 1972 election. Eventually it was tied to Nixon, who both covered up the news and famously lied to the American public about it.
But “The Post” shows the daily newspaper before Watergate, when they were playing catch up to the New York Times, which had just published the Pentagon Papers. Those papers, compiled by longtime Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, showed the United States’ incompetent handling of the Vietnam War, spanning three decades and four U.S. presidents.
Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, the Washington Post. Throughout the movie, her challenge was to lead the Post into an era where it was to become a national newspaper, rather than a regional, family newspaper. Part of that struggle was giving up her cozy relationships with national leaders, including McNamara. At one point, she went to his house to tell him the Post was publishing the Pentagon Papers and he misinterpreted what she said. “I’m asking for your advice, Bob, not your permission,” she said.
Graham was a very strong, tough woman, unusual for that time when there were few women in positions of power. Streep, who has been nominated for an Oscar for her role, plays it perfectly.
She did not arrive at the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers easily. At that time, Graham and her advisers were in the middle of going public, selling shares of the newspaper company. The publication of the Pentagon Papers could hurt the public offering and not raise the $3 million that was needed. It’s touching when Graham said that $3 million could buy 25 reporters for the newsroom, rather than more advertising salesmen or more people in the press room.
“The Post” is terrific. Having been in the newspaper business for many years, I’m impressed that Spielberg got it right.
The newsroom, the pressroom and the composing room, where the typesetters worked, were painstakingly and accurately created. In those days, it took a lot of people to produce a daily newspaper and it took many steps, from a reporter banging out a story on a manual typewriter to a copy chief who worked on the story with his pencil, making changes before the story was sent to the composing room, where it was set in type and laid out into page galleys.
Earlier in my career, I spent a decade working an afternoon to early morning shift for a daily newspaper, laying out pages and waiting for the press to run. I remember how the building shook when the press started and how I was responsible for the newspaper as it came off the press. Thankfully, I never had to yell, “Stop the presses,” because I knew that if the newspaper wasn’t printed right that minute, it would cost the company money and be late getting to your doorstep a few hours later. The pressure to meet multiple deadlines — 9, 10, 11:15 and midnight — each night was intense and the movie conveyed that to me.
Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee also was amazing in “The Post.” He, too, had to learn to give up his life for the newspaper – his house became an auxiliary newsroom at one point, with a bunch of dedicated reporters and writers trying to understand the Pentagon Papers and bang out a story on deadline for the next day’s edition.
He also had to change with the times. The time had passed when he as an editor could sit in The White House, eating dinner and smoking cigars with the Kennedys.
Watching that film reminded me how proud I am to be a journalist. I never worked in a huge city newsroom, nor in Washington, D.C., but our job today, in this noblest of professions, is the same as it was then: Tell the truth, be accurate and do it on deadline.
The Cameo is currently in its “Countdown to the Oscars,” when it shows all the films nominated before it hosts the 90th Academy Awards Party at 3 p.m., Sunday, March 4. For a listing of their offerings, check the schedule in this newspaper or visit their website, cameocinema.com.