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Balancing Historical Accuracy and a Gripping Story Is a Challenge. ‘The Post’ Nails It

December 29, 2017 in History

By Heather Ann Thompson

Ben Bagdikian, who helped publish the Pentagon Papers. (Credit: Arleen Ng/Oakland Tribune via AP)

In 2006 I walked into a dim and dusty backroom of an old courthouse in upstate New York and my heart stopped. Before me stood a wall of shelves on which thousands of pieces of paper had been haphazardly crammed—countless documents related to the Attica prison uprising of 1971 that government officials had been trying to keep hidden for decades.

Clearly the clerk that had temporarily moved these papers here hadn’t a clue what secrets they might reveal. But I did, and this scared me.

With these documents, not only would I be able, finally, to name the members of law enforcement who killed scores of unarmed prisoners and guards in cold blood back in 1971 but, as important, I would be also be able to reveal which government officials had worked so hard to cover up those murders.

That is, I suspect, also how New York Times journalist Neil Sheehan and Washington Post reporter Ben Bagdikian felt that same year as they stared at thousands of pages of a top secret report on the U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967—the so-called Pentagon Papers. They too must have been stunned and fearful as they looked at the mountain of evidence, provided by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, indicating that our nation’s top elected officials had severely abused their power, defended the indefensible and misled the American public.

Ben Bagdikian, who helped publish the Pentagon Papers. (Credit: Arleen Ng/Oakland Tribune via AP)

And thanks to an extraordinary new film, The Post, viewers will get a glimpse into the moment when Bagdikian’s paper decided to publish Ellsberg’s stolen documents, even under threat of imprisonment, after the New York Times had been banned by the courts from printing further stories on their blockbuster scoop.

When I arrived at the theater to see this particular film, I must admit, I felt some butterflies in the pit of my stomach. Of course it isn’t unusual for historians like me to worry before seeing movies about important historical events: It is hard to imagine how that complexity might be captured in a mere 90 minutes. That, however, was not what was making me grip my seat a little tighter.

As a historian who consults on films, I know that the best writers, producers, and directors work very hard not just to render an event cinematically gripping, but also to make sure that it is portrayed accurately. My jitters stemmed instead …read more


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