THURSDAY, AUGUST 4, 2022
"It really happened that way:" Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated film, The Post, appeared in December 2017.
When the well-received film hit the multiplex, major critics accurately said that it was built around a treatment of two major societal issues.
Most explicitly, it provided a history of the Washington Post's decision to publish the so-called Pentagon Papers all the way back in The Summer of 71.
Also, it offered a look at the ubiquitous sexism of that earlier era, as seen in the way Katharine Graham, the Post's owner and publisher, was treated by the many men who surrounded her—by the many men on her board of directors, on her legal team, among the top figures at the Post, even among her closest friends.
Beyond that, critics tended to say that the film offered a warning about American president Donald J. Trump, who was nearing the end of his first year in the Oval Office.
What Nixon did in 1971, Trump would be prepared to do again! Critics agreed that Spielberg's film was offering as a bit of a warning in this general regard.
On its face, the film was dealing with deeply serious issues. Arguably, this might have made it seem a bit strange to see the way Spielberg decided to make his film "thoroughly entertaining"—to see the way the film provided "a rollicking, enjoyable time at the movies," possibly even a “rock-’em-sock-’em two hours of grab-yer-ass entertainment."
(For citations, see yesterday's report.)
The year was 2017. For some reason, Spielberg's film about these vital matters was being sold to us the people as "grab-yer-ass entertainment."
Had we the people possibly been "amusing ourselves to [intellectual] death" in the 46 years since Graham made the decision to publish the Papers? More specifically, had we the average people succumbed to this intellectual malady? Or had it possibly been happening on the Hollywood end—perhaps among the nation's "elites" more than among the mere people?
Such questions are hard to answer. That said, we suspect that someone may have been asking some such questions after watching Spielberg's slapstick-riddled film. We base that upon a passage from the 3-and-a-half star review the film received from Ann Hornaday in that very same Washington Post.
As we've noted in the past, we've known Ann a little these many long years, and we like her a lot. At one point in her review, she offered a bit of a protest:
HORNADAY (12/7/17): Those tense couple of weeks in June  form the spine of "The Post," a fleet, stirring, thoroughly entertaining movie in which Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks play Graham and Bradlee with just the right balance of modesty, gusto and expertly deployed star power. Directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, "The Post" canters along with crisp pacing and straightforward, unfussy clarity...
[His] instinctive sense of what it takes to connect with a mass audience—so often snobbily dismissed as “middlebrow”—is precisely what distinguishes Spielberg as an artist, and it allows “The Post” to go for broke with such unselfconscious energy, feeling and, every so often, sheer beauty. And in fairness, sometimes what seems like overkill is backed up by the facts: If Bradlee’s young daughter Marina setting up a lemonade stand at a crucial juncture strikes some filmgoers as folksy to a fault, they should know that it really happened that way.
In Hornaday's rendering, Spielberg was "connect[ing] with a mass audience" through the various insertions which made his film so entertaining.
Did those entertaining insertions sometimes "seem like overkill?" If so, readers should know that they were (sometimes) "backed up by the facts," Hornaday said.
As her example, she cited the case of The Girl With the Lemonade Stand.
To our ear, this passage suggests the possibility that there may have been murmurs about Spielberg's constant use of a type of "middlebrow" comic relief. When we watched the film last weekend, the (wise-cracking) Girl With the Lemonade Stand provided one of many such examples—but yes, the girl can be said to be (very loosely) "based on a true story," or at least on one fleeting report of same.
Midway through the film, the Washington Post's Ben Bagdikian has been dispatched to a motel near Boston to retrieve the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg. At the time, Bagdikian—a highly respected figure—was the Post's assistant managing editor for national news.
Bagdikian is played by Bob Odenkirk, one of the three "funnymen" Spielberg employs to "lighten the heaviness with physical comedy," specifically through their "fumbling and stumbling." He's portrayed as a major figure inside the Post, which he actually was.
By the time he heads for Boston, we've already seen Bagdikian clumsily surrender control of a pay phone as fumbles for the pencil and paper he neglected to have available as he's given the phone number at which Ellsberg can be reached.
After losing control of the phone, he starts frantically repeating the number to himself—the number he failed to write down due to his fumbling lack of preparation. He then spills a fistful of pocket change all over the sidewalk as he attempts to dial the number has has struggled to get.
(As one of our analysts said, "If that's the way the Washington Post was gathering information back then, it's no wonder they were constantly getting outplayed by the New York Times.")
Back to Bagdikian's struggles:
After fumbling away control of the pay phone and spilling his change all over the sidewalk, he has somehow managed to get to Boston—and he has acquired the Papers.
We now see him on the plane as he flies back to D.C. He's shown haplessly trying to fasten a seatbelt around a large carton on the seat beside him, the carton containing the Papers. A stewardess looks on in amusement as his fumbling and stumbling continues.
Eventually, Bagdikian arrives in D.C. with the Papers. He heads straight for Bradlee's house, where the Papers will be reviewed—and when he arrives, the aforementioned Girl With the Lemonade Stand is perched out front on the sidewalk.
As Hornaday notes in her review, it's possible that "it really happened that way." In his 1995 memoir, A Good Life, Bradlee pens this fleeting remark on page 303:
At 10:30 A.M., Thursday, June 17, Bagdikian rushed past Marina Bradlee, age 10, tending her lemonade stand outside our house in Georgetown, and we were back in business.
For the next twelve hours, the Bradlee library on N Street served as a remote newsroom, where editors and reporters started sorting, reading and annotating 4,400 pages, and the Bradlee living room served as a legal office, where lawyers and newspaper editors started the most basic discussions about the duty and right of a newspaper to publish...
According to Bradlee's book, the adorable girl with the lemonade stand was actually there on the sidewalk that morning. Two pages later, he pens a second fleeting remark in which he says that Marina wandered through the house during the day, attempting to sell her product.
In this sense, the presence of The Adorable Girl in Spielberg's film is actually "based on a true story," or at least on one published report of same. That said, Spielberg takes Bradlee's fleeting reference to his daughter and runs.
We see the youngster again and again in the ensuing scene. We see her as she brings her large LEMONADE sign indoors, then as she brings the components of her stand indoors. We see her as she wanders around, selling her lemonade to a mob of Post personnel, as her mother flies about, offering everyone sandwiches.
In its presentation of this chaos, the film creates an adaptation of the famous scene involving the Marx Brothers in the fantastically overcrowded stateroom in A Night at the Opera. Inevitably, the girl is scripted with a wisecrack at the expense of her clueless elders:
MARINA: Do you want lemonade?
POST EMPLOYEE: It's a little early for me.
SECOND POST EMPLOYEE: Ah, loosen up, I'm buying. What kind of lemonade you have there?
MARINA (sarcastically): Uh, it's the one with the lemons in it?
In this thoroughly entertaining film, Post employees frequently tend to fumble and stumble. Inevitably, the adorable 10-year-old girl with the stand is sarcastically cracking wise.
This structure comes straight out of sitcom land. Does it hail from a dying culture?
Based upon Ben Bradlee's report, his daughter Marina really was there when the Pentagon Papers arrived. Spielberg took that brief citation and ran. From that point on, the way "it really happened" came straight out of Hollywood's brain.
In this Oscar-nominated film, Hollywood took serious topics and rendered them thoroughly entertaining. That doesn't have to be a bad thing, until such time as it is.
Tomorrow: Portrait of a reporter. Portrait of an age?