Watching The Post kindled some thoughts on the historical figures depicted in the movie.
Fritz Beebe, played by Tracy Letts in the movie, was a valued business advisor to Katharine Graham. Decades later Katharine Graham told Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air that Beebe made a half-hearted argument against publishing the Pentagon Papers; his intentional lack of forcefulness gave her the space to make the decision to publish. This dynamic is captured perfectly in The Post. In the same interview, Katharine Graham gives her own version of the Pentagon Papers publication by the Washington Post; the movie hews closely to this account.
Watching Bruce Greenwood’s fine performance as former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara reminded me of the Errol Morris documentary: The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. In 2003, Morris got McNamara to sit in front of a camera and spill the “lessons learned” from his Vietnam War mistakes. It was an exercise in confession for McNamara. But when listening to McNamara’s “if we had only known then…”, I kept remembering, enraged, that we DID know then. And the Pentagon Papers showed that McNamara, especially, knew most of this stuff then. I have never been so infuriated leaving a theater.
Now Tom Hanks in The Post and Jason Robards in All the President’s Men are wonderful as the swashbuckling editor Ben Bradlee. If you want a dose of the real Ben Bradlee, search YouTube for “Ben Bradlee Charlie Rose” – you’ll find a 53-minute 1996 interview with Bradlee, including his first-hand account of the Pentagon Papers episode.
If you perform a Google Image search for “ben bradlee antoinette pinchot”, you’ll find the real photo of Ben Bradlee and Antoinette “Tony” Pinchot Bradlee with Jack and Jackie Kennedy. In the movie, Tom Hanks and Sarah Paulson are Photo-shopped into the picture in the Bradlee’s Georgetown townhouse.
Daniel Ellsberg (portrayed in The Post by Matthew Rhys) is still around and has written a new book. Last month, Ellsberg agave his own Fresh Air wide-ranging interview, in which he detailed the painstaking process of Xeroxing the 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers one page at a time and cutting the “Top Secret” off each page with scissors.
And to nitpick, here’s the one historical inaccuracy that I could find in the movie – some New York City hippie protester in 1971 gives Mario Savio’s famous “bodies on the gears” speech, which Savio actually delivered seven years earlier in Berkeley .