The 2018 Oscar nominations are out, and Hollywood aficionados are busy speculating who’s in and who’s out, why, wherefore, and whatnot. No, Wonder Woman didn’t make it, either for acting or directing. Praise be to the Lord: There seems to be some cinematic sense of justice about the world. Yes, Meryl Streep did make it – her 21st nomination – for her role in Steven Spielberg’s The Post. But no, Spielberg did not make it to the best director list, and rightly so.
The Oscar nominations are always a key barometer of the spirit of the year, not just in Hollywood but the United States in general. The liberal elite, as the conservatives call them with disdain, are out staging what they think is the good, the bad, and the ugly about the world as they see it. This year, there is nothing uglier than Trump when it comes to the legitimately fearful tremor his hostility towards the First Amendment has sent down the spines of American democracy.
The Post and the perils of the freedom of the press
One year into the presidency of Donald Trump, American journalism is in deep trouble. It is fair to say this trouble is in fact not limited to American journalism and extends to the very institution of journalism in general – in the US or anywhere else for that matter. It is equally important to remember that the traumatic turn for American or any other journalism did not exactly begin with Donald Trump, it has much longer and more enduring ailments. The New York Times may want to remind the world of its role exposing the lies of the Vietnam War. But it certainly does not wish to be reminded of its own instrumental role in fabricating false evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction as a prelude to the US-led invasion, occupation, and destruction of Iraq. Blaming Trump for everything is now a subterfuge for camouflaging the more structural and enduring maladies with American journalism.
But not just the New York Times, American journalism in general loves to think of itself as an obstacle or balance to the power of the ruling elite. The fact, alas, is that it is integral to that ruling elite. It is its chief ideological machinery of building consent for the status quo. Its active opposition to Trump, for which there must be serious sympathy, is because with his notorious tweeting he has bypassed them and thus altered the rules of the game. He does not need the New York Times or the Washington Post or CNN, etc. to reach his base. That he is abusing the new media to propagate hatred, racism, and even potential groundwork for fascism does not exonerate the US media for its own complacency with a gentler, more liberal, more clandestine, less vulgar (think Obama) and thus more palatable militarism around the globe.
Spielberg's nostalgic romanticism is pitch perfect as a piece of journalistic antiquarianism. But by the same token, it is politically childish, juvenile, even irresponsible.
Against this background, Steven Spielberg’s new movie, The Post (nominated for best picture) is a feeble attempt, trying in vain to retrieve a heroic age for American journalism. Yes, this is the age of “fake news,” of “alternative facts,” and of “post-truth.” Yes, the cherished First Amendment of the US Constitution is under concerted attack by the very presidential person and the very Oval Office most responsible for protecting it. But is Spielberg’s outdated sentimentalism the way to address the matter?
The Post is a boldface lionisation of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) as a larger-than-life figure rising to the occasion of defending freedom of the press and publishing classified documents exposing the US lies and atrocities in the course of the Vietnam war. Spielberg pays close and necessary attention to the struggles of Katharine Graham fighting her way against the entrenched patriarchy of her time. Her courage became doubly important as she rose to face both the corrupt office of US presidency under Nixon and the masculinist misogyny of her age at large. The scene in which she exits the US Supreme Court with young female journalists lovingly admiring her is a necessary allusion to the rise of women in a profession to this day afflicted with structural inequality and predatory sexual harassments.
But as he celebrates those aspects of Katharine Graham’s persona, Spielberg is equally conscious, as he should be, that she and her class were integral to the ruling elite that went all the way to the White House. There are behind-closed-doors confessions between her and Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the executive editor of The Washington Post at the time, in which they both confide in each other that they were in fact professionally and thus morally compromised with their proximity to power. The chummy relationship between President Obama and the US press was staged for the whole world to see during the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner – a deeply troubling social gathering for an institution that claims autonomy from the political elite.
Nostalgia for a time that never was
The series of stories that first the New York Times and later Washington Post published on the Vietnam war based on classified information known as “the Pentagon Papers” revealed how the Nixon, Johnson and Kennedy administrations had consistently lied and concealed the fact that the US was losing the war in Vietnam.
Compared with the age of the Internet and WikiLeaks revelations, this period of American journalism is now something of an ancient history. Spielberg is in fact at his cinematic best nostalgically recollecting the outdated analogue technology of journalism that today looks even more archaic than those archaeological tombs he used to explore with Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones films. Spielberg’s nostalgic romanticism is pitch perfect as a piece of journalistic antiquarianism. But by the same token, it is politically childish, juvenile, even irresponsible.
Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine analyst, had brought the Pentagon Papers to the attention of both The Times and The Post as an act of patriotic duty. Celebrating Ellsberg at a time when Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange, or Mordechai Vanunu in Israel, are actively criminalised is a piece of wistful hypocrisy that speaks more to the compromised politics of Spielberg and his aggressive Zionism than to any remedy for the serious afflictions of American media.
It was irresponsible and silly of Lebanese authorities to initially ban Spielberg’s film just because he is an avid Zionist and financially helps the Israeli war machine. It was wise to later reverse that decision. These films must be seen, for they are occasions for critical reflections on what exactly the function of Hollywood is in facilitating the US/Israeli war machines, and how, even in their nostalgia for heroic journalism, they portray their own historical amnesia and moral blind spots. Banning and censoring films is the last thing the Arab and Muslim world needs in its critical encounters with US imperialism, Israeli Zionism, or Arab and Muslim fanaticism for that matter.
The Post concludes with an apt allusion to the fact that as the Pentagon papers revelations were rolling apace, the burglary in Watergate was about to happen – an episode in American journalism that deserves to be celebrated and honoured for what it did, just before it is updated for a period when both Washington Post and New York Times are in fact actively implicated in US warmongering around the globe and the Israeli colonial conquest of Palestine.
A considerable aspect of the critical encounter with The Post in film reviews we read surrounds the merits of family-owned news outlets and the rivalry between the Times and the Post, as which one is more heroic in reporting the truth.
“The more important lesson,” Jim Rutenberg writes in his review of The Post for The Times, “is that, in both cases, family-led newspapers placed their journalistic missions ahead of business imperatives. And they did so under intense governmental pressure, a reminder of the important role that principled family leadership plays in the news business.”
Rutenberg gleefully celebrates this oligarchic power of one or two families over mainline journalism in the United States – a crucial point to keep in mind next time the Times writes an editorial condescending to Al Jazeera being “owned” by the Qatari ruling family! If only the Sulzberger family were to buy Al Jazeera and run it the way they run the New York Times, the world would be safe for American imperialism and Israeli Zionism alike.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.