It is not that hard to imagine a movie plot that includes an angry, vindictive White House determined to silence a news organization, whose aggressive reporting is exposing the truth of what the administration wants to keep hidden.
But "The Post" is not about Donald Trump and CNN. It's the battle between Richard Nixon and The Washington Post in 1971 over the Pentagon Papers. Steven Spielberg says that when producer Amy Pascal sent him the script earlier this year, it gave him something he was missing.
There was not a lot of good news on the news. And I just didn't see much hope in the short term. And the script came along, and every single page had more and more hope. And I started getting filled up with a kind of patriotism –which, naturally, all of us carry that with us but this really pressed that button in me. And I said, oh my goodness, a story about the lie, and a story about the truth overruling the lie and winning!
The film stars Tom Hanks as the late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as the late publisher of the paper Katherine Graham. The two are faced with what to do when the paper is leaked the Pentagon Papers. It is the moment in time when Kay Graham comes into her own as a leader in a field dominated by men. It is a moment when freedom of the press is at odds with the White House.
There was such modern-day resonance that the filmmakers were determined to get it into theaters and into the national conversation as soon as possible.
After a recent screening of "The Post" at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, The Frame's John Horn moderated a Q and A with some of the creatives who made the movie, including Producer Amy Pascal, Actor Tom Hanks and Director Steven Spielberg. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.
"The Post" Q & A
Amy, one of your first calls was probably a conversation with Ellen Lewis, you're casting director. And things had to move really quickly.
Amy Pascal: Well, Steven gave the script to Tom [Hanks] and Meryl [Streep]. And they read it right away, and that was on a Friday. And on Sunday they were making the movie. I don't think anything's ever happened like that in the history of movies. The other thing was Steven, I think it was March 3rd, where he called and said "I like this, I like this let me think about it." And we were shooting in May. So I don't know if anyone else in the world could have pulled that off but Steven is quite miraculous.
Spielberg: You know, it's interesting because, I had all female producers on this, which is wonderful because things get done when that happens. A bunch of guys sit around, you know we kind of like kibbitz a little too much but, there were a lot of fires being lit. And of course the evening news was lighting most of the fires but we really felt that we could get into the national conversation and make this movie as quickly as possible. And make it as well as we possibly could. And I truly believe, and I've made a lot of pictures, I really truly believe that if we had another six months of pre-production to post production time, we still couldn't have done any more than we did to get this at nine months onto the screen.
Tom, You get the call from Steven, you take a look-
Tom Hanks: The read was it. It was Liz' screenplay. Look, when you're dealing with what is essentially nonfiction entertainment it has to be two things. It has to somehow speak to today– and you can just invert the year '71 and '17, and it does, the integers. But it also has to have a degree of newness as in 'I did not know that.'
Kay Graham wrote an amazing book called Personal History, Ben Bradley wrote his own book A Good Life. In the source material like that, and other areas, where did you find an insight into Ben. What was your path to finding how to play him?
Hanks: Ben loved being a journalist at every step of the way that he ever did. He was cynical but he was not a cynic. He knew that people lied, people lied on every place of the food chain in whatever position of power anybody has– from the water commissioner of upstate New Hampshire to the President of the United States. His mission as a member of the fourth estate was to print the irrefutable truth. He did say, "You can't be wrong, if we're wrong in any way we're going to have to eat it for the next 24 hours and that does not taste good." So his desire to get the right story that no one could deny was the way he ran everything. And the fact that this all happened in the week that Katherine Graham became "Katherine Graham" was something that he was very much aware of.
Spielberg: And the other thing is, this story is also the story about leadership and what it means to lead. And it has so many ramifications about women in the workplace in 1971, and women in the workplace in 2017. And a lot has changed, and as you all know a lot hasn't changed. All of these things are very resonant for us.
At what point did you decide to include the White House tapes? And those are the actual tapes that we're hearing?
Spielberg: Yeah, those are the actual tapes of Nixon and Haldeman, it was all the president's men around those tapes. And I decided very early on because it was easy to go to Youtube and listen to the White House tapes that had been released a few years ago by the Freedom of Information Act. And I just thought "why get an actor to play Richard Nixon when we've got the Richard Nixon?" So we did get an actor to memorize the dialogue and then to just lip-sync it so that his body would be in complete syncronization with the actual tapes which were played on a loud speaker. And he did a great job, but I wanted Nixon in the film. I thought it was very important to have the presence of the White House Administration, especially when he says "well the New York Times they're our enemy, we got to just do it." Just hearing a president say "a paper is our enemy, let's just go ahead and enjoin them"- wow, deja vue!
Amy, I want to follow up on something Tom was talking about, we're all talking about it. And that's the women who made this film. You, the producer, Krystie Mocasko at Krieger, Stacy Snider at Fox, Ellen Lewis, Ann Roth, Liz, your screenwriter, Merryll, obviously. Why do you think Katherine's story is so important to tell today?
Pascal: Well I think there's a scene in the movie where she's in the boardroom. And she knows the answers to all the questions. And she's studied really hard, she's studied more than anyone else has. And she says the answers under her voice. She can't get the words out but she sort of whispers them, and then someone else says them and goes "yeah, right that's what it is!" And I have had that experience. I think any woman in this audience has had this experience. When the entire company is working for you but they're still not listening to you. That's not so far fetched. That scene, the way that Steven did it, and the way that Liz wrote it was so resonant for me and it was so resonant for Stacy that it was one of the first things that we talked about. Because women still haven't found their voice. They still haven't found a way to talk about how they feel and what they're thinking. We started this long before Hillary was going to be the president and Harvey Weinstein was still running the Weinstein company. These things are true, always. They've been true for a very long time.
I can ask this last question of anybody but I'm going to pick Tom- about the relevance of this period film today, and what it has to say about the importance of a free press and they way in which the press was under attack then, the way in which it's under attack now, and what you'd hope people would be encouraged to think about after they watched this film.
Hanks: The thing that's happening right now, the difference between '17 and '71 is- we had a justice department and an elected official who was trying to stop us from the right to publish. That is a direct assault on the first amendment. That literally is an un-american, unthinkable mano-a-mano vs. the basic freedoms we were guaranteed and have been guaranteed for all of our existence. What's happening now is a different brand of insidiousness. It's different from attacking the right to publish- it's a dilution of what is true. It is saying 'you cannot believe anything that is anywhere' so therefore you can believe anything you want. And that is not the same as that attack on the first amendment, but it definitely is some brand of assault on what is right and what is true and what is free. I mean it's funny- in the interviews that I saw of Ben Bradley he said (in character) 'you know the Pentagon Papers now, if you were to look at it you'd probably say well what's the big deal' it's an old study, it's old news, they were trying to shut us down over old news it doesn't make any sense.' Well that's almost a quaint, innocent, naiive take on what is day-in and day-out now- an assault on the truth. It is as relevant as can be. And this is what great film-makers, great writers, great producers, and one-time celebrity actors who, when they decide to tell a non-fiction story, put out a piece of nonfiction entertainment that is based on something that happened 50 years ago. It could've happened 100 years ago. It actually speaks almost to that biblical sense of 'vanity of vanity all is vanities' there's nothing new under the sun.