Depending on your familiarity with the political scandals of the early 1970s, the final minute of Steven Spielberg’s new movie The Post will feel like either a prologue or a cliffhanger. Either way, the final scene inextricably links The Post with another journalistic thriller All the President’s Men.
Starring Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, and a handful of your favorite TV actors including Carrie Coon and Sarah Paulson, The Post tells the behind-the-scenes story that led to Washington Post publishing the Pentagon Papers and the strength of publisher Katharine Graham’s leadership under immense pressure.
The events in the film take place over just a few weeks in June of 1971. The New York Times began publishing the papers on June 13, only to be served with an injunction by the federal government a day later forcing them to cease publications using the Pentagon Papers. On June 18, The Washington Post began publishing its own articles using the papers. Twelve days later, the Supreme Court decided in a 6-3 judgement that the federal government could not restrain either The New York Times or The Washington Post from publications using the Pentagon Papers.
All the President’s Men, directed by Alan J. Pakula, follows two journalists – Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward – from The Washington Post as they investigate and uncover the Watergate scandal. Unlike The Post that follows a story over the course of a few weeks, All the President’s Men is much wider in scope. The investigation lasted more than six months and it took another 20 months after their initial publication for Nixon to resign.
Spielberg is keen on ensuring the audience is aware of the relationship between these two stories. Although they take place approximately a year apart – the Supreme Court decision on the Pentagon Papers was issued on June 30, 1971 and the Watergate break-in took place on June 17, 1972 – and that the major players in each story are different – The Post is predominately a story about editors and publishers whereas All the President’s Men is about the journalists themselves – Spielberg ends The Post with a scene that signals the coming storm of the Watergate scandal.
Without indicating a year has passed since the events of the film, Spielberg cuts to a police officer discovering the break in at the Watergate building. The last shot of the film is from outside the building; through the windows, we see the police officer making his way into the office while five men burglarize the offices of the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
In tacking this scene on to the end of his film, Spielberg is drawing on the ubiquity of Watergate’s reputation as a significant moment in U.S. history in order to bolster the importance of The Post’s story. It’s an undeniably smart move; with nothing more than a single scene, Spielberg manages to conflate The Post with the Watergate legacy.
However, Spielberg is not just connecting the film to Watergate; he makes a deliberate choice to associate his film specifically with All the President’s Men. The Watergate break-in scene in The Post is almost identical to the way it’s depicted in All the President’s Men. Spielberg duplicates both the shot of the door being opened to DNC offices and the shot from outside the building with visible flashlight beams inside.
Depending on how you see it, Spielberg’s choice to model this scene so clearly after All the President’s Men operates as either a polite homage or a short cut to conflating two films that are, in fact, quite different.
Pakula’s All the President’s Men strictly obeys the principle of “show don’t tell” – documenting the journalistic process with a fine point, capturing both the corruption and paranoia that defined the political atmosphere of the time. Each step of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation is exhaustingly detailed, slowly intensifying the significance of the story itself. It’s deeply mindful of the importance of a free press in discovering and reporting on corruption within a democratic republic, articulating this element through the very nature of the investigation itself.
The Post, on the other hand, should be categorized as blunt force storytelling. It’s a film that seeks to advance a narrative that is both supportive of the free press and deeply feminist. It chooses to articulate these messages with overt and corny sentiment, at times affecting, while at others barely palatable. The story of The Washington Post and the Pentagon Papers has little to do with an actual investigation and everything to do with the decision to print in the face of a clenched-fist president seeking to shut down the freedom of the press. That the focus of The Post is on the decisions of the paper’s editor and publisher leaves the film little room to luxuriate in a nuanced investigation and Spielberg leans into the explicit nature of the story hard.
However, despite their dramatically different modes and tones of storytelling, they share the idealistic notion that the press can hold our leaders accountable for corrupt decisions and maintain the ability to affect significant change.
So, yes these films share an important history and yes, they tell their stories in much different ways, but perhaps that is because they view their shared history differently. The creators of these two films, no doubt informed by the time period in which they were made, look their histories differently. All the President’s Men was made in 1975, just over a year after Nixon’s resignation. It’s not unfair to say that Pakula’s film was made with the lingering sentiments of the Nixon administration still close at heart. The Post, however, is informed less by the Nixon administration, but by the current Trump presidency.
In an era defined by “fake news,” The Post tells the story of a newspaper making a difficult choice despite the oppressive actions of a presidential administration. A little over a year after a woman lost the presidency to a virulent racist and sexist, The Post tells the story of a woman taking control of a company defined by men that doubt her ability.
Ultimately, by ending The Post with a scene that directly mimics the beginning of All the President’s Men, Spielberg seeks to tie the legacy of his own film to that of Pakula’s and to strengthen the message of The Post itself. Despite how shoehorned in it feels, it’s a choice that works. Audiences love a franchise and Spielberg delivered a prequel that no one knew they wanted.