In Hollywood, democracy triumphs over evil.

That’s the blueprint established by Mr. Smith Goes to Washington some eight decades ago, and it’s still a popular template. In director Frank Capra’s famous 1939 film, Jimmy Stewart arrives in Washington as an idealistic young Senator, and defeats graft and cynicism through winsome faith and lengthy filibuster. The forces of prejudice, authoritarianism and corruption mass nefariously in smoke-filled rooms, but brave believers boldly clear the smoke and light the lamp. From All the President’s Men (1976) to A Few Good Men (1992) to Amistad (1997), A-list stars assume the role of brave newspapermen, brave lawyers or brave congresspeople, give speeches about American ideals and look noble as the credits roll.

Steven Spielberg’s The Post fits firmly in this tradition of democratic uplift. But no matter how Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep project earnestness, the fulsome tributes to press freedom and American decency are less than convincing in the era of Trump. It’s as if Jimmy Stewart, that innocent outsider, had come to Washington and started screeching about fake news and regurgitating racist bile while the press chortled and gave him free air time. If all these on-screen celebrations of American democracy haven’t helped preserve American democracy, then what good are they, exactly?

The Post seems especially ill-timed, given the failures of the press in the 2016 election. The film is about the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Those documents, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, showed that the U.S. government had lied for decades about the prospect for success in the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration attempted to prevent the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing the documents. But, in the film, Post publisher Kay Graham (Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) bravely forge ahead, revealing the scandal, informing the public and asserting press freedom in the teeth of an authoritarian White House.

It’s a familiar parable—and one uniquely ill-suited to our present moment. During the 2016 election, the press’ eagerness to uncover corruption and expose public misdeeds led it to exercise execrable and dangerous misjudgment. Dazzled at the possibility of “winning” the next Watergate scandal, the news media jumped on the nothing story of Hillary Clinton using an unauthorized email server while Secretary of State. “In just six days, the New York Times ran as may cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election,” according to a Columbia Journalism Review study.

Leaked, innocuous emails from the Democratic National Committee about risotto recipes were treated like Pentagon Papers-level revelations. Then, when members of the press were asked to reflect on their screw-ups, they made grand-sounding declarations about the First Amendment, as if it was some kind of patriotic duty to refuse to exercise responsible news judgment. Worst of all, the press mostly missed and downplayed the actual scandal of the election—possible collusion between Trump and Russia—until after the votes were counted, and it was too late.

That’s not to say the press has been useless. The Washington Post investigation into accusations against Senate candidate Roy Moore for sexual misconduct of minors helped Democrat Doug Jones win the Alabama seat in an unprecedented upset. But while the press has had some victories in the Trump era, our current political moment has been characterized at least as much by institutional failures as by successes.

Of course, Hollywood shows democracy’s failures. The Post is all about presidents lying to the American people. It also dwells on Katherine Graham’s close friendship with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Upper-class networks connecting powerful people can dilute press coverage. In the final scene of the film, Streep-as-Graham acknowledges that the press isn’t perfect, but earnestly tells Hanks-as-Bradlee that they just must keep pushing ahead. Bradlee folds his arms and says, with righteous satisfaction, “That’s the job.”

But for The Post, as for Hollywood films in general, democratic failures are transitory; democratic victories are the lasting truth. The stories always end on a high note, with corruption revealed and the heroes sharing a knowing smile. The moral is that evil is defeated, that good people of good will eventually triumph, and that American democracy will win out.

The problem is that this is not true—and it leaves us without imaginative resources when democracy fails. Spielberg shows the emancipation of enslaved people in Lincoln (2012)—but what kind of victory was that, exactly, when black people continued to be oppressed for another 150 years, right up through the present day? The Post is thrilled that the press held the government accountable for Vietnam. But we’re currently engaged in an apparently endless conflict in Afghanistan and a little-reported, utterly immoral war in Yemen. We got rid of Nixon, but now we have Trump. Maybe the history of the U.S. isn’t a triumphant march toward the dawn. Maybe it’s brief flashes of democracy, quickly smothered by the overwhelming weight of injustice.

Some may find this overly pessimistic, even in 2017. But there’s no doubt that democracy in America has been, at best, a wavering proposition, with numerous setbacks and gruesome failures. Yet in film, we rarely see those setbacks, or grapple with them honestly. The tyranny of happy endings erases the spectacle of actual tyranny. The collage of good people doing the right thing obscures the many occasions where bad people—or for that matter, good people—do the wrong thing.

With Trump in the White House, targeting marginalized groups for hate and repression and prosecuting journalists and protesters, we need something more than parables of success. We need stories about failure. How has the press participated in spreading racism and imperial propaganda? How has it bolstered the authoritarian impulses of the president? What important stories have newspapers missed, and how have they misled the public? The Post insists that the press will protect us. That’s comforting. But in the face of injustice, we don’t need comfort. We need to know what it looks like when institutions let us down.