As part of a college press roundtable, I joined a Skype call with Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, and Steven Spielberg to discuss their hyper–relevant new journalism drama, The Post. It was by far the best nine–minute interview I've participated in.
The Post follows Kay Graham (played by Streep), the publisher of The Washington Post and the first woman in the country to hold such a position, in her ultimate decision to circulate the Pentagon Papers. These leaked documents revealed a host of secret bombings that the U.S. was carrying out across Southeast Asia, as well as the true intent of the Vietnam War: to contain China's growing influence. The central thrust of the film is Graham's debate over whether to release this dossier or bow to legal intimidation from the Nixon administration. This struggle plays out in her relationship with Ben Bradlee, a dogged Post editor who challenges Graham's Victorian ideals and pushes her to take a risk and publish the intel.
The Post marks the first cinematic collaboration between Hanks and Streep, and the script provides generous opportunities for all the onscreen duals you could hope for. Their chemistry translated beautifully into real–life, as they had no problem needling each other in front of us.
As the interview inevitably circled back to Trump, Hanks joked about his calling Streep "one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood," saying: "No, I disagree. She is the most overrated."
Streep laughed and added, "I actually think he may really like The Post weirdly, because it is a great movie and it is a patriotic movie."
The film is painfully relevant, amidst all the free speech and fake news debates that have saturated 2017. And Streep's character portrayal of the hesitantly feminist Graham is only made more timely by real-world Hollywood events, including an anti-Streep postering campaign and Rose McGowan's public condemnation of her involvement with Harvey Weinstein over the years, which Streep has just recently responded to.
The Post is the first movie to truly center on Kay Graham, illuminating just how instrumental she was to the long–term success of The Washington Post. She was not referenced at all in Watergate scandal film All the President's Men, which takes place just two years after the action depicted in The Post. She appeared in the first draft of the script, but was eventually written out.
In a scene that never was, Graham was supposed to meet with Bob Woodward (played by Robert Redford) to question his confidence in his Watergate sources. In her only moment of dialogue, she touches on her hesitation to release the Pentagon Papers: "I was thinking back a year or two ago when Ben [Bradlee] called me and said he wanted to publish the Pentagon Papers the next day. So we published, and that night, after I'd told Ben to go ahead, I woke up in the darkness and I thought, Oh my Lord, what am I doing to this newspaper?" This anxiety plagues her for the entirety of The Post's 116–minute runtime.
Spielberg was a little more buttoned–up when he discussed his newest directorial project. In the group interview, he told me that he made an active effort to distance his film from All the President's Men, which he cited as one of his personal favorites.
"I really believed the Pentagon Papers is not the prequel [to Watergate] or The Post is not really the prequel to All the President’s Men," he noted. "I think it’s a standalone piece of reflective history about how this woman, Katharine Graham, came into her own and found her voice, finally, and [how] that voice led to a tremendous explosion of courage and faith in the free press."
"Well, it wasn’t only the high-minded risk, it was a business risk...because sometimes bad news makes good newspaper," Streep added, describing Graham's bold decision in a pre–Watergate news environment. "It’s a great thing at the end of the film where they say 'You know, I couldn’t take another one of these things again' and two years later, right?"
"Two years later they were at it again," Spielberg chuckled.
Here's to more political scandals, courageous journalists to cover them, and Hollywood movies to dramatize their efforts.
The Post hits Philadelphia on January 5th, 2018. Catch it at the Ritz Five and buy advance tickets here.