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Kenneth Turan reflects on 'The Post': How a film critic watches movies about experiences he lived through

Kenneth Turan
Film Critic

Film critics do not, by any reasonable standard, lead glamorous lives. Most of our time alternates between sitting in dark rooms watching movies and sitting in lighter rooms writing about them. Not the stuff of great drama, not even close.

But an accident of fate has meant that not one but two major Hollywood productions with big stars attached have been made about a chunk of my professional life — the nearly a decade I spent working as a reporter at the Washington Post from 1969 to 1978.

First came 1976's Watergate-themed "All the President's Men," directed by Alan Pakula with Robert Redford as Bob Woodward, Dustin Hoffman as my pal Carl Bernstein and Jason Robards Jr. winning an Oscar for doing my boss Ben Bradlee almost better than Bradlee did himself.

Now, decades later, comes "The Post," directed by Steven Spielberg, with Tom Hanks taking on Bradlee and Meryl Streep doing an uncannily accurate impression of the paper's owner, Katharine Graham, a frequent presence in the newsroom who managed to seem distant as well as accessible.

If you'd told me when, as a small boy in Brooklyn, I was falling in love with movies that one of these magical ribbons of dreams would involve even the tiniest corner of my life, I would have thought I'd be bowing and taking applause all around.

But experiencing that as an adult, and as a critic, has been more complex, even unnerving, and different every time. My range of reactions have also given me insights into what films do and how they do it that I may not have gotten absent that personal connection.

I don't want to imply, before I go any further, that I was a key cog in the team that took on either Watergate or the Pentagon papers. I was a sportswriter in 1971, and by 1976 I had moved on to a job as a feature writer in the paper's Style section.

Though I did write a profile of Frank Wills, the security guard who discovered the Watergate break-in and is a figure in both films, political reporting was never my area.

But the Washington Post was a bit like a village in those days, and I was struck, especially in "The Post," by how many of the “characters” were people I knew, and by how distracting and disorienting that knowledge was, throwing me out of the film time and again.

While Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), for instance, was tracking down the Post's copy of the Pentagon Papers, I was remembering the night I went to a Seder at his house.

When Peter Osnos' name was mentioned in passing by an editor, I thought of his future as founder of Public Affairs Press and the publisher of many of my books.

And when Judith Martin (Jessie Mueller) and Bradlee strategized about covering Tricia Nixon's wedding, I thought of the scheme she and I cooked up to get the creators of the comic strip “Apartment 3-G” to bring back a character we both loved. (It worked.)

The whole newsroom was so familiar, in fact, that I half-expected to see a younger version of myself tearing around a corner in a great big rush. Now that would have been strange.

Review: Steven Spielberg's 'The Post' is a movie about the past that speaks to our times »

Even seeing Streep as Mrs. Graham, as reporters invariably addressed her, was disorienting because somehow — using an extra sense great actors have — Streep had intuited things about how the Post's owner stood, how she held herself, that were close enough to the reality to be positively spooky.

Seeing "The Post" so many years after the events it depicts combined with having seen "All the President’s Men" again just a few years ago, allowed me to focus on the time-travel aspects of this kind of film, its ability to precisely re-create a past that is no more.

Seeing the Pakula film's exact re-creation of the Post newsroom was, 40 years after the fact, so dizzying that I almost couldn't leave my seat when it was over.

The smallest things, like recognizing the lithograph I loved on managing editor Howard Simons' wall, the long-gone pneumatic tubes used to move copy and the paper's color-coded system of copy paper, opened floodgates of memory.

With "The Post," the experience was even a little humbling, as I realized I had forgotten until I saw the film that the Pentagon Papers newsroom and the Watergate newsroom were in fact two different spaces. No wonder people complain if even small details are wrong on screen: it is so close to real, it doesn't seem fair if it can't go all the way.

More than small things resonated with me on seeing these two films, but the impact was different with each movie.

With "President’s Men" I vividly remember sitting in the Kennedy Center for the film's world premiere and watching as Hoffman’s Bernstein attempted to interview former attorney general John Mitchell on the phone and got hung up on in the process.

“Wow,” I thought to myself. “How exciting, how romantic to have someone hang up on you.” Then I remembered that in the real world of the Washington Post, where I still worked every day, having someone hang up on you that way is depressing and demeaning, not exciting at all.

Even when movies are trying to be realistic, by their very nature they glamorize everything they touch. So if you’re looking for anything like accuracy in movies, you’re barking up the wrong tree. It’s simply not going to happen.

The lesson to me of "The Post" was different, more subtle. Though I of course remembered the events, I didn't remember feeling at the time that the whole thing was as important as making a Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks/Meryl Streep film about it implies.

Had I missed something? Had I been in effect sleepwalking through events whose significance and dramatic weight I should have been alive to? Why wasn't I saying to my Post colleagues, "Mark my words, they'll be making a movie of this someday"?

The answer is twofold. "The Post" turns out to be, as most historical films are, blessed with hindsight. It knows — as its closing moments with security guard Wills demonstrate — that Watergate is coming and that the two stories are linked. Without that foreknowledge, what happened in 1971 did not have movie material written on it.

Seeing "The Post" also made me realize that the most obvious, most basic thing about film is also the most essential. Literally and metaphorically, movies are bigger than life, they write everything large. Characters must make clear, focused points every time they speak and drama must be created around them to get and hold our attention. Real life muddles on without those advantages, and when life and art connect, it's bound to be a bit of a bumpy landing.

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