The story provides a riveting context for a timeless dilemma: when must one speak out to expose a grave national danger even knowing the stakes are unfathomably high?
Throughout American history, there have been catalytic moments in which ordinary citizens must decide whether to put everything on the line–livelihoods, reputations, status, even freedom—to do what they believe to be right and necessary to protect the Constitution and defend American freedom.
With The Post, multiple-Academy-Award-winning director Steven Spielberg excavates one such moment.
The result is a high-wire drama based on the true events that unfolded when The Washington Post and The New York Times formed a pragmatic alliance in the wake of The Times’ incendiary exposure of the Top Secret study that would become known to the world as the Pentagon Papers.
Though scooped by The New York Times, The Washington Post takes up the story that has brought legal threats and the power of the White House down on The Times—as huge personal stakes collide with the needs of a shocked nation to know what its government is hiding. In the balance might hang the fate of millions, including thousands of U.S. soldiers fighting a war their government does not believe can be won.
In just a few days of crisis, pioneering but inexperienced Post publisher Katharine Graham will weigh her legacy against her conscience as she gains the confidence to lead; and editor Ben Bradlee must press his team to go beyond the ordinary, knowing they could be charged with treason for carrying out their jobs.
But as they do, the underdogs at The Post become unified in a battle far larger than themselves—a battle for their colleagues and the Constitution—one that underscores the necessity of a free press to hold a democracy’s leaders accountable, even as it challenges Graham and Bradlee to their most private inner cores.
With The Post, Spielberg comes together with an extraordinary mix of actors at the top of their game.
At the center of the ensemble piece are the performances of Streep and Hanks as Graham and Bradlee—one a untested leader learning to stake her ground as a woman in a shifting world; the other a hard-nosed newsman evolving from chasing down stories to fighting for the very principles of truth—who discover they can push one another to their best.
Behind the scenes, Spielberg reunites with his close-knit band of award-winning collaborators including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, production designer Rick Carter and composer John Williams, with the legendary costume designer Ann Roth joining the circle.
It all adds up to a recreation of 1971 that seems to unfold with mounting suspense in real time.
Throughout his career, Spielberg has been drawn to visiting those moments on which historical transformations turn in films ranging from Empire of the Sun and Schindler’s List to Munich, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies.
The Post turns Spielberg’s lens for the very first time on 1970s America, the same era in which he first became one of America’s eminent filmmaking voices.
Its relentlessly brisk narrative is a story of personal connections and courage, but it also brings Spielberg into the world of newspaper reporting at a critical moment for the nation and the world, a realm on the cusp of change with the rising power of women and the coming of corporatization. Most of all, the story provides a riveting context for a timeless dilemma: when must one speak out to expose a grave national danger even knowing the stakes are unfathomably high?
“Steven made this story into a thriller,” says producer Amy Pascal. “He has an innate ability to make historical moments dynamic and of the moment. You are on the edge of your seat watching this movie, but it also reminds us of the timeless duty to tell the truth.”
Adds producer Kristie Macosko Krieger: “This movie is about the power of the truth, but it’s also a personal story of a woman’s transformation from a housewife to head of a Fortune 500 company. It’s a personal story inside a historical story of giant stakes and that’s what made it so compelling to all of us.
Chasing the Story: The Screenplay
The story of the Pentagon Papers is many stories – the story of how four Presidential administrations lied to the nation about the circumstances of the war for more than 20 years, the story of why former U.S. Marine and military consultant Daniel Ellsberg blew the whistle, the story of how The New York Times handled a spectacular and incendiary scoop, the story of the decisive litigation, not to mention the story of the ongoing implications for the media, the First Amendment and democracy itself.
But Liz Hannah’s page-turning screenplay for The Post came at it from a fresh angle, honing in on the roiling human intrigue and magnetic personalities at the center of The Washington Post’s consequential decision to enjoin the battle to publish.
Hannah had long been fascinated by the life and times of legendary Washington Post publisher Katharine (Kay) Graham, who in the early 70s was striving against the grain, the first woman to head a major national news organization. She was fascinated by how Graham evolved from the heir of a growing newspaper into a true leader among journalists. A spark went off when Hannah came across the story of how Graham willfully chose to risk both her paper and career—at the most vulnerable moment for both—by continuing to publish the Pentagon Papers after a court ordered the New York Times to stop. This was the story for which she’d been searching. It was a profoundly formative moment in Graham’s life and in the nation’s life, and one as full of complex characters and twist-and-turns as a tale of espionage.
“I’d read Graham’s memoir Personal History and I wanted her voice to be heard. But I kept trying to figure out how because I didn’t want to write a biopic,” Hannah explains. “It wasn’t until I read Ben Bradlee’s memoir and encountered this momentous decision to publish the Pentagon Papers that I understood how to proceed. I decided to tell the story of the two of them in the context of Graham coming-of-age as she set the future course of The Post. There was so much drama and risk-taking that the narrative just flowed.”
The stakes Graham and Bradlee faced were colossal. They included: the reality that young men were still being drafted into service in Vietnam with increasingly high casualty numbers; the anxiety that the charges they could face included treason; the legacy and even future existence of The Washington Post; the concern they were putting their staff and families at immense risk; and the inner worry that they might be betraying friends.
It was the buildup to that risk-taking—and the bravery it inspired across The Post and American journalism—that became the linchpin of Hannah’s script. In the writing, it became as much about how and why people choose to act as about the colorful life of an ambitious, scrappy 1970s newspaper. Hannah also approached the structure as a high-stakes love story, a platonic union of a yin-and-yang publisher and editor who forged an unbreakable loyalty when the hazards for both were at their greatest. “The publication of the Pentagon Papers is the moment Kay and Ben’s relationship is forged, when their trust and partnership becomes their strength,” Hannah says. “I see it as the love story of soulmates who shared a common quest.”
Soon the screenplay was garnering buzz. When Amy Pascal read it, she recalls: “I thought to myself, this story needs to be told. Part of what I loved about Liz’s script is that it was about a wife and mother who didn’t think she’d ever have a real job, who was dismissed by nearly everyone in her life—and suddenly she has to make one of the most consequential decisions in history. It forever changed her industry and her life, and she becomes the first woman to run a Fortune 500 company. I really cared about that story.”
The story also drew the attention of Meryl Streep, who in 2017 has marked her 40th year on screen, even before Spielberg was on board. “I was familiar with the stories about The Washington Post and Watergate from Alan Pakula’s All The President’s Men, where Kay Graham makes a brief but fleeting appearance. But I really didn’t know much about her,” she recalls. “But Liz’s script really seemed to capture the flavor of that time. I found it incredibly compelling. And a story that hasn’t been told.”
Spielberg also had a visceral reaction to the script. Despite being in the midst of intensive preparation for the special effects-heavy Ready Player One, this deeply historic, and human, story called to him. “Liz’s writing, her premise, her critical study and especially her beautiful, personal portrait of Graham got me to say: ‘I might be crazy, but I think I’m going to make another movie right now,’” he recalls. “It snuck up on me.”
Kristie Macosko Krieger, who has worked with Spielberg for two decades, remembers: “We just turned everything around in a day. I called everybody and said, ‘let’s wrap it up in Italy, we’re going to make a movie in New York in 11 weeks.’”
It all came together at an unusually brisk pace, even for Spielberg whose work ethic is renowned. The two leads he wanted to cast as Graham and Bradlee—Streep and Hanks—each expressed immediate interest. Almost miraculously, both had openings in their schedules. Here was an opportunity for three gifted artists in film today to work in partnership and all were determined to move ahead full speed.
Especially interesting to Spielberg was the risk-taking involved, which made the story equal parts thriller, drama and character study of a woman uncovering the ringing strength of her voice. “The Washington Post took a huge chance publishing after the judge told The New York Times to halt,” he says. “The timing couldn’t have been worse. The Post was kind of bleeding out and they needed to go public to remain solvent. And in the middle of it all was Graham, who had to make the biggest decision of the newspaper’s history. I saw the story being as much about the birth of a leader as about the growth of a national newspaper.”
Spielberg then brought in Academy Award-winning screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight), known for his ability to write viscerally about the lives of reporters, to expand Hannah’s screenplay.
Recalls the director: “I sent the material to Josh and he really responded to Liz’s script, and he went right to work. We had many conversations together and we read both Graham and Bradlee’s books and we got fired up about the possibilities of where this story could go. Josh did such deep research in a short amount of time. I’ve never seen anything like it and I think part of it is because he studied law, then started writing for The West Wing. He understands the importance of finding the truth, and finding the details of the truth, not just the broad strokes of an historical story. He was inexhaustible in talking with the people who were there.”
“It was great to be able to bring Josh and Liz together. I don’t think I’ve seen two writers work with each other better than they did,” adds Pascal.
“Liz’s script was about two human beings on an intimate journey, an incredible script,” Singer says. “What we then wanted to do was add in more history and a strong sense of the timeline to show how remarkable these few days were and bring the audience deeper into that world. We move beyond Kay and Ben to see what’s going on with the Nixon tapes and with The New York Times and it all helps create more context for Kay’s massive moment of decision-making.”
Singer kept Graham and Bradlee’s relationship at the center of the writing. “Their evolution is the centerpiece of the story and the way Liz wrote it, it was honest and true,” he says. “Their bond is like a young marriage in a way. Ben and Kay have been working together for five years but up to now they’ve never faced any serious hardship. Now they’re facing their first big test and they push each other to the point that you think they’re going to break – and what’s beautiful to watch is that instead they come out stronger.”
Also important to Singer was drawing a direct line from The Washington Post’s decision to keep publishing the Pentagon Papers to the newspaper’s fearless reporting on Watergate (which became the subject of Pakula’s cinematic classic, All The President’s Men.) “This is the origin story of the Watergate investigation in a sense,” Singer notes. “Without this team in place the Watergate reporting may not have happened. The Pentagon Papers basically changed the way the paper operated and led to that possibility.”
The script was a further opportunity for Singer to look at a different side of journalism—the courage not just to hunt for attention-grabbing stories but equally so to have the audacity to publish what powerful people might not want published, to hold authorities to account. The Post is decidedly not about breaking a news story; and it was essential to make clear that The New York Times got the scoop on the Pentagon Papers.
“The New York Times led the way on this story,” states Pascal. “In fact, our movie starts with Ben Bradlee going crazy because he hears yet again there’s a story The Times has that he doesn’t. He’s a competitive journalist through and through and The Times getting this major story drives him bananas. But what is interesting is that he goes from caring about not getting the story to caring more about how to bring people the full truth. It becomes a different kind of cause for him, for Kay and for The Washington Post.”
For more perspective, Singer closely consulted a range of technical advisors with firsthand insight. Chief among them were: Steve Coll, a 20-year Washington Post veteran as reporter and managing editor, currently a New Yorker staff writer and dean of the Columbia School of Journalism; Len Downie who was The Washington Post’s managing editor under Bradlee and succeeded him as executive editor in 1991; Andrew Rosenthal, former editorial page editor of The New York Times and son of Abe Rosenthal; and R. B. Brenner, a former Washington Post editor, now the director of the Journalism School at the University of Texas at Austin. Members of the Graham and Bradlee families made further contributions.
This, notes Spielberg, was markedly different from his many films set in a faraway past. “With a lot of the historical films I’ve made, the people involved are no longer living. There’s nobody I could interview or have Tony Kushner interview for Lincoln,” he observes. “But for this film, we were able to learn from people who were part of that extraordinary time in 1971. We benefited from getting to know Don Graham, his son Will, Lally Weymouth, as well as Daniel Ellsberg and principals of that era who changed the course of history. It was manna from heaven being able to sit in a room and talk to the people who were there.”
Coll, who knew Graham and Bradlee personally, especially enjoyed the focus on the duo at this crux juncture. “The Washington Post greatly benefitted from having these two charismatic leaders,” he observes. “By 1971, Graham had been growing. She had been in charge of the paper for several years and was still shedding her skin and remaking herself as a forceful leader. The events the film captures are a turning point in her life. They tested her values like nothing before because it required her to decide whether she was willing to put this business, her father’s business, at grave risk for editorial principle.”
Going to jail was a very real possibility for publisher and reporters alike, Coll emphasizes. Perhaps even worse for Graham was the prospect that her family’s paper could go under. “There was a risk Graham could face contempt charges, even prison. And there was also the business risk because this was happening just as the paper was selling shares in an initial public offering,” Coll explains. “For those of us lucky to know Kay at this time, we saw her grow and grow into the great strength she showed at this trying moment.”
As the script developed, Spielberg brought his own insights to bear, in his own distinctive way.
Explains Pascal: “I’ve spent most of my life developing scripts, talking about character and plot, but that’s not the way Steven does it. He does it from the inside. He wants to know things like: How do the characters walk? Where do they throw their coat when they walk in the room? You can see in real-time the script becoming a movie in his mind. Watching that has been one of the most thrilling things I’ve been a part of.”
Another joy for Spielberg was telling a story that is about a powerful woman while surrounding himself with powerful women in the production. “There is an empowering side to this story as you watch this woman find her voice and also her sense of personal commitment,” he says. “I loved being surrounded on the set every single day by remarkable women: our great producers Amy Pascal and Kristie Macosko Krieger, as well our great co-writer Liz Hannah and a whole talented company of actresses. It was really exciting.”
Krieger notes that Graham remains a pathfinding figure for many women in 2017. “In this day and age, it’s still challenging for women to rise up in a male-dominated culture,” she points out. “We’re getting better every day, but there’s still room for growth. Graham opened things up as a pioneer so that we might all feel comfortable raising our voices and being strong women. So it felt right that we had so many amazing women working together to get this movie made. At one point, we realized that there were more women than men on set, and that’s the first time that’s happened for me. It seemed to be Kay Graham’s spirit at work.”