Among this year’s Best Picture nominees are two powerful profiles in courage, The Post and Darkest Hour.
I grew up in post-World War II America, hearing all about Winston Churchill, who was my father’s hero. He would regularly do Churchill impersonations for us.
Two speeches cemented his place in history (and in my memory). The first was delivered before Parliament on June 4, 1940, less than a month after he became prime minister and just after the rest of Europe had fallen to the Nazis: “We shall go on to the end,” he said. “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”
The second speech, on June 18, added an exclamation point: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour!'”
Between those speeches, the film shows, Churchill went through a “darkest hour” of the soul. England was alone, and Churchill felt alone in his resolve to resist. Europe couldn’t help. The U.S. wouldn’t help (18 months shy of Pearl Harbor). The fate of his army in Dunkirk looked more dire by the day. And his party conspired to replace him if he didn’t consider a peace deal with Germany.
The Darkest Hour dramatizes how he overcame his own doubts and uncertainty, found the courage to defy everyone else’s, and, as Lord Halifax puts it with grudging admiration following the June 18 speech, “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
What is known as his “never give up” speech, by the way, was delivered more than a year later, on Oct. 29, 1941, when he visited Harrow School, his alma mater:
“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
Churchill is the exception that proves the rule, “Never say never.” He also, apparently, never said, “Never give up,” but that’s how it was relayed to us growing up. He also proved true a popular English adage, “Cometh the moment, cometh the man.”
Americans look to films to bolster our flagging and faltering patriotic courage. Superheroes fail to inspire because we’re not in their league. The kind of courage shown by fallible humans who rise to an occasion in spite of their doubts and fears sets a much better example for all of us mere mortals.
Katharine Graham’s courage, as portrayed by Meryl Streep in Steven Spielberg’s The Post, is likewise impressive. The first female publisher of a major American newspaper, she was thrust into the role when her husband, Philip Graham, committed suicide three months before JFK was assassinated in 1963. Gracious, warm and mannered, Kay Graham struggled to be taken seriously in a male-dominated world. Yet she found herself in the crucible in 1971, deciding whether the Washington Post would publish the “Pentagon Papers” after a judicial ruling temporarily barred the New York Times from continuing its nine-part series, based on a classified government report leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, a U.S. military analyst formerly with the Pentagon.
The report described how President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara knew as early as the mid-1960s that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable, but they lied to the public, gambling that they could drive North Vietnam into peace negotiations and thereby save face politically. The result was sending some 50,000 young Americans to their deaths unnecessarily — and polarizing this country to the present day.
The pressure on Graham was crushing. She had a close friendship with McNamara and was generally cozy with the power elite. She could have gone to prison herself for defying the lower court’s restraining order (which claimed national security interests take precedence). Her company and her family’s legacy were in jeopardy (her father purchased the Washington Post in a bankruptcy auction in 1933). She had just taken the company public and banks were threatening to pull their support.
She had a lot to lose.
She chose to publish anyway.
In retrospect, knowing it was the right thing to do, it’s easy to say, “Of course.” In real time, such decisions take tremendous courage. The Post does an excellent job of dramatizing that moment, as Graham stammers the go-ahead with everyone around her (except editor Ben Bradlee) questioning her judgment and strongly disagreeing.
The Post’s publication forced the Supreme Court to fast-track “New York Times Co. v. the United States,” and on June 30, the court issued its landmark 6-3 decision in favor of the First Amendment. In the film, Graham borrows a line from the opinion by Justice Hugo Black, former senator from Alabama (and former Ku Klux Klan member), who had been on the court since 1937 and who would die of a stroke three months later. He wrote:
“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. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”
“The press serves the governed, not the governors,” Graham repeats as she discusses the verdict with Bradlee. Those words should be posted in large block letters in every newsroom in America.
At this point, my handkerchief was out of my pocket and getting quite a workout. For me, that was the film’s defining moment, and it made me feel pretty good about my career choice.
These two films and their depiction of patriotic courage couldn’t be more timely.
Graham’s defining moment came in 1971.
Cometh the moment, cometh the woman.
For the rest of us, that moment is now.