In 2006 I walked into a dim and dusty backroom of an old courthouse in upstate New York and my heart stopped. Before me stood a wall of shelves on which thousands of pieces of paper had been haphazardly crammed—countless documents related to the Attica prison uprising of 1971 that government officials had been trying to keep hidden for decades.
Clearly the clerk that had temporarily moved these papers here hadn’t a clue what secrets they might reveal. But I did, and this scared me.
With these documents, not only would I be able, finally, to name the members of law enforcement who killed scores of unarmed prisoners and guards in cold blood back in 1971 but, as important, I would be also be able to reveal which government officials had worked so hard to cover up those murders.
That is, I suspect, also how New York Times journalist Neil Sheehan and Washington Post reporter Ben Bagdikian felt that same year as they stared at thousands of pages of a top secret report on the U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967—the so-called Pentagon Papers. They too must have been stunned and fearful as they looked at the mountain of evidence, provided by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, indicating that our nation’s top elected officials had severely abused their power, defended the indefensible and misled the American public.
And thanks to an extraordinary new film, The Post, viewers will get a glimpse into the moment when Bagdikian’s paper decided to publish Ellsberg’s stolen documents, even under threat of imprisonment, after the New York Times had been banned by the courts from printing further stories on their blockbuster scoop.
When I arrived at the theater to see this particular film, I must admit, I felt some butterflies in the pit of my stomach. Of course it isn’t unusual for historians like me to worry before seeing movies about important historical events: It is hard to imagine how that complexity might be captured in a mere 90 minutes. That, however, was not what was making me grip my seat a little tighter.
As a historian who consults on films, I know that the best writers, producers, and directors work very hard not just to render an event cinematically gripping, but also to make sure that it is portrayed accurately. My jitters stemmed instead from the fact that the same women who produced The Post, Amy Pascal and Rachel O’Connor, will be also be producing the film adaptation of my own book on Attica, Blood in the Water. This was my chance to see how this duo would bring an iconic event of the 1970s to the silver screen.
I need not have been so nervous.
Those who made The Post—screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, director Steven Spielberg, and producers Pascal and O’Connor—did a masterful job of recreating this decade, and the details of the year 1971 specifically, for their audience. From a poster for the movie The Blob on an office wall, to the pneumatic tubes in which sheathes of paper were delivered to editors, to the massive, clanking printing presses of the 1970s, viewers are truly transported back in time.
Because the filmmakers did not just rely on props, but had really learned about the newspaper industry of the 1970s, one can almost smell the ink and touch the hard blocks of typeface used to produce papers back in the day. One almost feels the air move as papers—blaring headlines about the Pentagon Papers—snake up to the roofs of the factory on their belts.
And yet, to make a movie that will truly impact an audience, it takes a great deal more than merely reproducing the sights and sounds of an earlier decade—no matter how believably. Somehow filmmakers must also persuade viewers that the historical event they are now rendering is important to know now.
For those who lived through the 1960s it probably doesn’t take much to be reminded of why the Pentagon Papers mattered when they were made public in 1971. By that year the Vietnam War had killed more than 50,000 young men in the U.S. and more than 950,000 people in Vietnam. This was a war that had begun back during the administration of Harry Truman, and it was one that the next four presidents had each promised would soon be won and done.
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This was even a war that had led to the deaths of young people at home. A mere two months before the New York Times published the first of the Pentagon Papers, Americans everywhere had watched in horror as national guardsmen gunned down protesting students at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four of them.
For a younger generation, however, the history of the 1960s is murky at best and, beyond simply adding to one’s own arsenal of trivia to trot out at a cocktail party, it isn’t at all obvious why knowing about the Pentagon Papers might shine important light on the country we navigate right now.
That is, until they see movies like The Post.
Thanks to the way this film tells Daniel Ellsberg’s story, viewers are guided to see the parallels between the past and present. After all, how different was what Daniel Ellsberg did in 1971 to what NSA contractor Edward Snowden did when he leaked details of secret global surveillance programs to journalists in 2013? Or Chelsea Manning in 2010, when the intelligence analyst leaked the so-called “Iraq War Logs” and “Afghan War Diary” to Wikileaks?
Ellsberg was a patriot. He was in the military, and tried to serve his country. But then he learned that those running the United States were acting immorally, illegally, and were seriously misleading the public. And so, as a patriot, Ellsberg agonized over whether he should make this information public.
Doing so was terrifying—the possibility of rotting in jail for treason and forever being known as a traitor to the United States of America. Viewers of all ages will “get” Ellsberg’s fear, and will understand the moral dilemma he faced. This history resonates and matters because those who made The Post made us understand just how present that past still is.
It isn’t just Ellsberg’s story that reverberates powerfully in the present. The screenwriters of The Post could, for example, have chosen to focus this film on the New York Times instead of the Washington Post. Not only was the New York Times the first paper to publish those government documents that Ellsberg decided the American people had a right to see, but it was also the first paper to face serious legal consequences for doing so.
But in telling the story of the Washington Post’s role in the Pentagon papers, viewers get to know Katharine Graham—the first woman ever to run a major newspaper company in the United States—as she finally begins to trust her own judgment, despite roomfuls of men trying to sway her toward their strongly held views. In scene after scene Graham is talked over and belittled by men, and she struggles between her desire to be polite and her need to be to be heard. Through the rich development of this particular character—and how relatable she will be to many women today—The Post reminds theatergoers that the past isn’t so long ago.
Indeed, in so many ways, The Post reminds us that the past must be reckoned with today more than ever. If we know more about why Daniel Ellsberg risked so much to tell Americans the full story behind the war they were asked blindly to support, we can better understand whistleblowers like Snowden and Manning. When we see how vital it was that two American newspapers agreed to publish the state secrets Ellsberg brought to them, we can realize how important it is to protect the press today. When we see how deeply sexism permeated the workplace a mere 46 years ago, we are disabused of any notion that gender equality doesn’t matter.
And, perhaps most significant, when we see in this film just how forcefully President Richard Nixon tried to discredit the press and to shut down any of its attempts to keep the nation apprised of what he and his administration were up to, we can see clearly what that was. That president was trampling on our Constitution and thus, severely threatening our democracy.
As The Post makes hauntingly and alarmingly clear, this history not only mattered then, but it has particular importance today.
Dr. Heather Ann Thompson is a historian at the University of Michigan, and is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy.
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