accuracy of “the post”; by steven spielberg

by Maddie Blanchard

Steven Spielberg’s film, The Post, starts in 1966, when Daniel Ellsberg, the State Departments military analyst, was traveling with American soldiers in Vietnam. He was sent there to document any progress that he might see in the war. After returning from the battlefield, Ellsberg presented the information he obtained to the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, in a private conversation on the plane ride back to the United States. Ellsberg tells McNamara that the war is not looking good and he doesn’t see any progress, and any hope that he originally had in the war, is fading. After the conversation ended, and the plan had landed, McNamara proceeded by feeding the press false information, by saying that the war in Vietnam is looking up, and that they “couldn’t be more thrilled with the progress”. Ellsberg saw the lies that were being fed to the American people, and got fed up with all the deception. In frustration, Ellsberg copied boxes of top-secret documents, called the Pentagon Papers, which contained crucial, high security information concerning the war in Vietnam. After copying a large portion of the study, Ellsberg continued by giving the information to The New York Times, who jumped at the opportunity to have a major story, and published several articles based on these documents. 

Chaos at work

In the film, Katherine Graham had just become the newest owner of The Washington Post, after her husband, the previous owner, committed suicide. In the film, Graham was constantly getting hammered with comments that because she was female and had no reporter experience she would bring down the reputation of the company. To add to her worries, Graham was also stressed as she was preparing to put the Washington Post on the stock-market, in order to financially secure the company. Ben Bradlee, Graham’s chief editor, was constantly on the lookout for the Washington Post’s big story, the story that would put The Washington Post on the map. (When Neil Sheehan, one of The New York Times best editors, hadn’t been writing any articles for a few months, Bradlee got the idea that Sheehan had something big). So, Bradlee sent out one of the Washington Post’s interns to track down Sheehan, to find out what he had been working on. The intern came back only with the knowledge that the story was big. Just the next day, Sheehan published his article on the Pentagon Papers. After, reading and hearing of the articles The New York Times published, Bradlee wanted to find The New York Times source and publish their own articles. Ben Bagdikian, The Post’s assistant editor, was able to track the source back to his former colleague, Daniel Ellsberg. However, as this happened, the Washington Post got wind that the United States attorney general had contacted The New York Times and asked them to stop further publishing, as these documents contained information that harmed national security. This paused The New York Times from publishing for a bit, however not long after, they continued publishing, threatening the entire company as they faced possible criminal charges, and were ordered to court. 

Getting the documents

 Finally, Bagdikian got his hands on the documents after meeting with Ellsberg in an old motel where he had kept the boxes of all the copied documents. Bagdikian brought back enough of the documents for The Post to have several major stories. He went straight to Bradlee’s house and they gathered a team of reporters and editors to help sift through the thousands of unsorted documents. Bradlee quickly informed his boss, Graham, that they had the papers, and had enough to publish tons of stories. However, because of the United States pressed charges against The Times for further publishing, this deterred Graham and many of her board members from the idea of creating and publishing a story of their own. Graham went to many of her respected colleagues asking what they would do, however she got several mixed answers. The publishers needed the article by midnight if The Post wanted to have it published the next day, so they needed to form a story fast. Once they had separated enough of the documents to have a story, he had one of his writers write up an article within a few hours, should Graham choose to publish. 

After many stress filled hours, Graham made the decision to publish, despite many telling her not to publish, due to the possibility that this could put Graham and Bradlee in jail. As anticipated, after the story was run, the United States government retaliated and called The Washington Post and The New York Times to plead their First Amendment rights at the Supreme Court. Graham and Bradlee went to court along with the CEO of the New York Times, to fight for their right to publish. A few days after, the court ruling came in and was called 6-3. The newspapers’ had won.


Although Spielberg’s newest movie proves to be largely accurate, there were some changes for cinematic reasons. However, Spielberg gave the public a movie which they could really learn from, as he portrayed a pretty accurate depiction throughout the entire movie. From the Pentagon Papers being stolen and copied, the process of publishing the articles, the New York Times vs. United States Case of 1971, as well as the portrayal of many major characters.

Katherine Graham

The portrayal of Katherine “Kay” Graham (played by Meryl Streep in the film) was fairly accurate, however there were some crucial aspects that were missed. Graham took over the CEO position at The Washington Post after her husband, Phil, committed suicide. He had been diagnosed with manic depression, and had become abusive to Katherine. Although Spielberg accurately represented the nervous and frazzled side of Katherine, there were other aspects of her that her husband brought out of her that Spielberg missed. According to information gathered by Carol Felsenthal, (editor of Politco Magazine and author of an autobiography of Katherine Graham), Katherine was a ”bullied victim turned bully” (Felsenthal). Katherine swore like a sailer and was known to be a fairly harsh boss; firing someone for even the littlest slip up. Even though there was a lot about Graham that was missed in the ‘The Post’, Felsenthal says that Graham herself and many of Graham’s colleagues would be happy with the Graham portrayed by Streep.

Daniel Ellsberg

Born in 1931, Daniel Ellsberg, a former marine, who then was working at RAND Corporation and at the Department of Defense. Ellsberg believed that the war was unwinnable. He had worked with the Department of Defense’s analyst team in the preparation of the creating the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg thought that the information within these top-secret documents needed to be publicly known. He believed that it was the Americans’ right to know what was going on. So, in 1966, just as in the movie, Daniel Ellsburg went in to RAND took and copied over 40 boxes of top-secret documents (history.com). Ellsberg then gave some of the information to the New York Times, to help spread the information through the United States.

How the Washington Post got ahold of the documents, was illustrated less accurately, however. In the movie, Ben Bagdikian, assistant editor at the post, was able to track down his old friend and coworker, Daniel Ellsberg, who had all of the copied documents stashed a a run-down motel. However, this wasn’t what truly happened. Daniel Ellsberg came to the Washington Post and gave Bagdikian the documents to be published, rather than Bagdikian going to Ellsberg. Although this fact isn’t highly crucial to the story, it is definitely going to give the audience a different idea. Ellsberg was doing everything he could to get the papers out in the public, however Spielberg missed that point by giving the audience the idea that Ellsberg was hiding them. 

The day the Washington Post got ahold on the documents, things went pretty crazy. The top reporters from The Post all showed up at Bradlee’s house to sort through the thousands of documents. From information he has gathered, Michael Rosenwald, (a current editor for The Washington Post) said that just as the film illustrated, Bradlee’s library “really did become a newsroom, his living room a legal boardroom. His wife, Tony, really did politely serve sandwiches. The phone really didn’t stop ringing.” (washingtonpost.com). These little details that Spielberg strived to implement into his film, enhanced the historical projection considerably. 

Another crucial event in this film, was the New York Times vs. United States case. This case went to the Supreme Court when, as Kahn Academy states, “In 1971, the administration of President Richard Nixon attempted to suppress the publication of a top-secret history of US military involvement in Vietnam, claiming that its publication endangered national security.” (Kahn Academy). Spielberg showed his audience what went down and what it may have been like to be there. He used news clips from the original stories, which better enhanced the historical portrayal of the case. Also included was the original statement from one of the Judges in the Supreme Court,  Justice Hugo Black, which I believe accurately sums up the issues surrounding these events. “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”(Cornell)   

Check out my post on why I believe historical accuracy is important! https://maddiemaybe.home.blog/2019/04/28/why-i-believe-historical-accuracy-is-important-in-films-media-textbooks-and-everything-else-the-government-controls/

Cornell Law School. New York Times Co. v. Unites States. Received from https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/403/713

Editors. Pentagon Papers. Received from https://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/pentagon-papers

Rosenwald, Michael S.. Fact checking ‘The Post’. Received from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/12/23/fact-checking-the-post-the-incredible-pentagon-papers-drama-spielberg-left-out/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0edf9ed52122

Felsenthal, Carol. What ‘The Post’ Misses About Kay Graham. Received from https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/03/04/the-post-graham-academy-awards-217218

Kannan, Ashley. ”What is the meaning of the quote beginning with “Who controls the past…”?”. Recieved from https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/whoever-controls-past-controls-future-whoever-90273. Accessed 9 Apr. 2019.

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