Steven Spielberg directs Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in The Post, a thrilling drama about the unlikely partnership of Katharine Graham (Streep), the first female publisher of The Washington Post, and its driven editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks), as they race to catch up with The New York Times to expose a massive cover-up of government secrets that spanned three decades and four U.S. Presidents. The two must overcome their differences as they risk their careers—and their very freedom—to bring long-buried truths to light.
The Post marks the first time Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have collaborated on a project. In addition to directing, Spielberg produces along with Amy Pascal and Kristie Macosko Krieger. The script was written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer and features an acclaimed ensemble cast including Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, David Cross, Bruce Greenwood, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Jesse Plemons, Matthew Rhys, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bradley Whitford and Zach Woods.
FIRST AMENDMENT TO THE CONSTITUTION:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
SUPREME COURT RULING: NEW YORK TIMES V. UNITED STATES 403 U.S. 713
EXCERPT FROM JUSTICE HUGO BLACK:
“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. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.”
“Some people enjoy competition and dustups, and I wish I did, but I don't.
But once you have started down a path, then I think you have to move forward. You can't give up.”
~Katharine Graham, Publisher of The Washington Post
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.
What are the Pentagon Papers?
In March of 1971, New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan obtained extraordinary access to a top-secret, 7,000-page report rife with damning government secrets. The document, originally prepared at the behest of then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967, had the prosaic title, “History of U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-66.”
However harmless it sounded, the report would set off shattering shockwaves that continue to this day. The document—soon to gain global renown as the Pentagon Papers—uncovered a dark truth: that vast, wide-ranging deceptions about the deadly war in Vietnam had spanned four presidential administrations, from Truman to Eisenhower, Kennedy to Johnson. The Pentagon Papers revealed that each of those Presidents had repeatedly misled the public about U.S. operations in Vietnam, and that even as the government was said to be pursuing peace, behind the scenes the military and CIA were covertly expanding the war. The Papers provided a shadowy history loaded with evidence of assassinations, violations of the Geneva Convention, rigged elections and lies in front of Congress.
These revelations were especially explosive news at a time when American soldiers, many drafted into service, were still in mortal danger at every moment. Ultimately, the war in Vietnam, which the U.S. would exit in 1975, took the lives of 58,220 U.S. service members and directly caused the loss of more than a million lives. The Pentagon Papers exposed the deceptions that led to many of their deaths.
The source behind The New York Times’ breaking Pentagon Papers news story was by all accounts a brilliant military analyst at the RAND Corporation—a high-influence, government-financed think tank—turned whistleblower: Daniel Ellsberg, who had been part of writing the secret study in the first place. Ellsberg had served as a Marine and spent two-years working in Vietnam with the U.S. State Department. Yet he’d become increasingly disillusioned by the glaring disparities between what he saw happening in the field, what was going on behind closed Washington doors, and all that the American people did not know about the war’s conduct and prognosis.
In 1969, driven to act on behalf of the soldiers despite peril to himself, Ellsberg and his RAND colleague Anthony Russo began furtively photocopying all 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers. They did so sheet by sheet, taking the document out of its secure vault at RAND each night and carrying their concealed quarry in a briefcase to a Xerox machine in the office where Russo’s girlfriend, Lynda Resnick – who owned her own advertising agency – worked. (Resnick was already involved in the antiwar movement).
Though Ellsberg considered this in his own mind as an act of high patriotism, some would soon call him “the most dangerous man in America.”
The New York Times Exposé and the Legal Battle:
Once he had a full copy beyond the vault, Ellsberg initially thought he would try to go through official channels to get the Papers into the public eye. But when he failed to get anywhere with several members of Congress, he determined his next best option was to leak the classified material to The New York Times. In March of 1971, Ellsberg cautiously invited reporter Neil Sheehan—who had first started reporting from Saigon at age 26 and was renowned for his hardnosed coverage of political and military affairs—to take a look at what he had. Though Sheehan could make Ellsberg no promises, he offered to take the Papers back to his bosses at The Times.
The Times recognized the consequential and incendiary nature of the Papers. Defying legal advice, publisher Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger and managing editor Abe Rosenthal decided to move forward, carefully considering their responsibility both to the public and the national interest. Setting up a clandestine operation in a hotel, a team of reporters spent three months scouring the Papers in depth, preparing for how to tell a very complex story—one complicated further by the fact they feared the F.B.I. could be on their trail. The decision was made to publish in the most non-sensational manner that they possibly could.
Nevertheless, the minute The New York Times hit the newsstands on Sunday, June 13th, 1971 with the first front-page headline, “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement,” havoc ensued. News editors at every other major city paper, knowing they’d been scooped big-time, started scrambling to launch their own investigations. Meanwhile in Washington, gears started accelerating quickly to prosecute not only Ellsberg but The New York Times and anyone who might attempt to bring the Papers’ secrets to light.
On June 15th, the Nixon administration asked a federal court for an injunction to halt any further publication by The Times, arguing that such publication would endanger national security. They got their request.
The Washington Post’s Decision:
With The New York Times barred from publishing further, other newspapers began jockeying to gain access to the documents and write their own stories and analysis. The Washington Post, long seen as a local underdog to the larger, more nationally-focused New York Times, took up the mantle immediately as assistant managing editor Ben Bagdikian, a former colleague of Ellsberg at RAND, chased down another complete copy of the Papers. It then fell to publisher Katharine Graham—then the only woman in a position of power at a major national newspaper—to give the go ahead or put on the brakes. Under intense pressure and against advice that she could torpedo the future of the newspaper, then on the verge of an initial public stock offering, she nevertheless gave editor Ben Bradlee the green light to start printing stores.
On June 18th, The Washington Post became the first to publish material from the Pentagon Papers following the injunction against The Times—at the cost of being enjoined in the legal action. That same day, the Department of Justice sought an immediate restraining order and permanent injunction against The Washington Post, though this time the order was denied by the federal judge who heard the case. Meanwhile, the courage of The Times and subsequently The Post only served to spark more stories in The Boston Globe, The Chicago Sun-Times and others as the importance of the moment took on a life of its own.
On June 30th, the Supreme Court weighed in, reversing the injunction against publication. The majority opinion held that publishing the Pentagon Papers was in the public interest and that it was the duty of a free press to serve as a check on government.
Ellsberg and Russo were indicted under Espionage Act charges, with Ellsberg facing a potential 115 years in prison. His trial began in January of 1973, just as the Watergate scandal was breaking. The two would become irrevocably linked as revelations came out that the Nixon White House had illicitly authorized spying on Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in an effort to discredit Ellsberg. Ultimately, on May 11, 1973, the judge in the case declared a mistrial due to what he deemed serious government misconduct. All charges against Ellsberg and Russo were dropped.
By that time, the story of the Pentagon Papers had become about far more than a single, controversial act of conscience; it had become about the great power that comes from many such acts in unity and about the power of telling the truth, no matter the threats and perils surrounding it.
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.”
The casting exhilarated Coll. “I cannot think of a better match than Meryl Streep. Hearing her voice, watching her walk brought Mrs. Graham back to life. And Tom Hanks not only looks the part, he’s internalized Ben’s way of walking, reacting, joking.” Len Downie concurs: “Meryl not only looks, acts and sounds like Mrs. Graham, she even seems to think like her. And Tom captured Ben Bradlee’s swashbuckling quality. All the actors playing the editors and reporters embody the people I knew. It’s uncanny.”
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.”
An Unlikely Partnership: Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee
While the tension of The Post surrounds the fight to publish the Pentagon Papers, it is also very much a portrait of partnership, about how the sum of people working together is far greater than individual talents. At the core of that story are two profoundly divergent people who nevertheless push and pull at one another to do their finest work: Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee. This iconic alliance gave the filmmakers the chance to unite Streep and Hanks. The results were galvanizing. “The first day Tom and then Meryl walked into the newsroom set, jaws dropped because they had so completely become Kay and Ben,” recalls Amy Pascal. “They are both the kind of actors who just transform into characters, and it was astonishing.”
Graham would go on to become one of the most influential women in America, a groundbreaker who unexpectedly shattered the glass ceiling to become head of The Washington Post Company’s media empire, then willed herself to become the grand dame of bold journalism. But at the time of the Pentagon Papers, she was still finding her feet, still learning how to operate as the only woman with a seat at the table.
The Washington Post had been in Graham’s family since 1933, when her father, the financier Eugene Meyer, acquired it. In 1946, Meyer was succeeded as publisher by Graham’s husband, Phil, who by emphasizing investigative reporting grew the paper from a hometown rag to one of national stature. In 1963, when Phil Graham committed suicide after a bout of severe depression, he left the paper to Katharine, then a 46-year-old mother of four. Though friends and experts beseeched her to let someone with more experience run it, Graham took up the mantle, saying she wanted to do it for her children and the family legacy.
“She was thrilled when her father gave the paper to Phil—and she thought her father had made a brilliant decision because of how smart Phil was. She talks about that in her autobiography. She adored and respected her husband and that’s why she thought trying to follow in his footsteps was the right move to make,” explains Spielberg.
Graham’s son, Don Graham—who served in Vietnam and now is Chairman of Graham Holdings Company—says: “My mother thought about her father, she thought about her husband and she decided she would try to run the business, the paper that they had put so much care into.”
Graham herself would later write: “Sometimes you don’t really decide, you just move forward, and that is what I did—moved forward blindly and mindlessly into a new and unknown life.
This ‘new and unknown life’ would bust open barriers. It was still a time when women reporters were barred from the swanky D.C. clubs where journalists had access to power peddlers. But no one could deny Graham entry as head of The Post. Nevertheless, she had to do a lot of soul-searching to hold her own. Raised in a conservative realm where women were traditionally deferential, she would later confess that she had to work mightily to claim her confidence, writing that she suffered “from an exaggerated desire to please, a syndrome so instilled in women of my generation that it inhibited my behavior for many years.”
She was still in search of greater confidence when she was thrown headlong into the Pentagon Papers dilemma. Don Graham observes: “The central thing about my mother was how self-doubting she was, which
I have to say, Meryl Streep captures very nicely. A lot of CEOs and newspaper publishers are pretty conceited. I could cite names and places, but Kay Graham was always the world capitol of self-doubt.”
Adds Graham’s daughter Lally Graham Weymouth, now a senior associate editor of The Washington Post: “I think it was really hard for her because she had been just a mother. I mean she was just taking us shopping or for walks in the park and she did some charity events, but she was not a journalist. She did not work professionally before my father died … I think it was extremely difficult, because she really didn’t have the background, as she herself would openly admit.”
Nevertheless, Graham, in the midst of her own personal evolution, would have to prove her guts and resolve–and make it crystal clear she was ready to unreservedly back her staff and the foundations of free speech. Later, Graham would become even more famed for urging her staff to uncover the truth of illegal actions by the White House during the Watergate scandal. But the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers was a watershed moment, one that set a course and cemented The Post’s reputation as an esteemed journalistic institution whose masthead now reads “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
While the external story is a matter of history, it is the internal story of Graham’s rise that Streep hones in on in The Post. She began her research with Graham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir. “It’s so beautifully written, so deeply felt that it’s one of the most compelling autobiographies I’ve read,” she says. “From it, I really got a sense of something her children and friends also talked about with me: that she was not always the confident Katharine Graham that people came to know as the first woman head of a Fortune 500 company. She was once someone very unsure of herself and the product of her time, a time when women weren’t expected to do much outside the realm of good works, good child raising and household keeping. It’s hard to really imagine how different that time was unless you lived through it. And I did. I was on the cusp of the rising opportunities for women, and I certainly benefited from many of them. But she was in the vanguard, so she was not completely comfortable with taking the reins of leadership.”
She continues: “She took a stand when it was very difficult for her to do that, when she was not only doubted by her adversaries, but also by her friends. I think it’s a particularly lonely thing to do, to take a stand under those circumstances. Everybody in this story does that. Every single person takes a risk. And that more than anything I think this is the story of the film: how ordinary people can really move the needle and change the course of history. Big things can come from one little person.”
Embodying Graham—whose stately physique often made her appear more in control than perhaps she felt—was also a key to the interior. “For me, it wasn’t as important to try to look precisely like her, as it was just to capture something of her personal grace – and also the tentativeness that was there behind decisions. It was a very interesting challenge,” says Streep.
To others, the transformation was haunting. Observes Kristie Macosko Krieger: “Meryl was so devoted to getting it right, she talked to as many people as she could who knew Kay in this period of her life. She worked a lot with Steven and she consulted with Josh and Liz and kept going until Meryl was just gone and Kay Graham emerged. The day we did a hair and makeup test, she came out in her power suit and there was Kay Graham. It was crazy. It's definitely not an imitation; she just captures the spirit of Graham.”
Also intriguing to Streep was the depth of Graham’s bond with Bradlee, which became a pillar for her to lean on when it looked like everything could fall apart. “I like that their friendship is platonic—you rarely see this in a movie. You rarely see just the working friendship of a man and a woman,” she notes. “I think that Katharine adored Ben. Without any hint of romance, I think she really felt like he was a part of her.”
That closeness based on shared aims was something resonant to explore with Hanks. She found him to be surprising. “Everyone knows Tom has the reputation of being the nicest guy in Hollywood. And he is very nice. But,” she interjects, “he’s also really smart, crackerjack smart. And I think that’s the quality he most shares with Ben: that crackling wit and the feeling he’s always a few steps ahead of everybody in the room. You see in Tom that part of Ben’s personality that wants more, more, more from everybody.”
The Post also marks Streep’s first real collaboration with Spielberg. “Steven works very hard, and he thinks very hard, but it’s like play for him, because he has the absorption and freedom of a child,” she observes. “It’s improvisatory, his filmmaking, which shocked me. I don't know what I was expecting, but we came in and there was no rehearsal. That really surprised me. Instead you just go in and start shooting and he just keeps mixing it up. It was so spontaneous and really thrilling. People were on their toes, believe me.”
Spielberg says of Streep: “The extent to which Meryl plumbed the depths of Katharine Graham … I don’t know how she did it and I’m the director.”
Co-star Carrie Coon was also struck by Streep’s dedication. Coon observes: “On set, Meryl’s always at work. So while you’re having a conversation, she's also got her ear bud in listening to Kay’s dialect before a scene. My husband, Tracy Letts [also seen in the film], said in a speech the mistake we make about somebody like Meryl is assuming that she's somehow magical when in fact, Meryl is an incredibly hard worker. And that's the inspiring thing about watching Meryl on set. You see that she feels a tremendous responsibility to her character and has her own kind of fear about living up to her own expectations.”
Sums up Don Graham: “I think if my mother could see Meryl Steep portraying her, she would feel this was pretty great.”
While Graham was in the process of finding herself in 1971, Bradlee had a reputation that preceded him: as the quintessential, no-nonsense newsman—hard-charging, tenacious and fiercely independent. Graham herself had hired Bradlee in 1965 as deputy managing editor but he quickly ascended in the ranks, garnering a reputation for hiring the most talented reporters and driving them to reach their potential.
Recalls Lally Graham Weymouth of Bradlee: “He was brash, charming and very, very self-confident. He thought he was always right, but the reporters loved him, which I think is an important ingredient in any executive editor. And he attracted great talent for that reason. My number one impression of him was the adulation and adoration of the reporters.”
Spielberg, who at one time was Bradlee’s neighbor and had many conversations about film and world events with him (though never about the Pentagon Papers), says: “Ben was the Commander in Chief of The Post newsroom. He was the captain of that ship, the same way he had once been the captain of a ship in World War II. And he ran it like a kind of a benevolent military operation. He was a tough guy, but he also had a sweet spot in his heart. He liked people and as impatient as he sometimes could be, he kept everybody together as a family. He turned The Post into one of the greatest news families in history.”
Over time, Bradlee and Graham’s unlikely rapport—his gruff relentlessness and her reticent charm—would become as much the stuff of newspaper legend as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Both shared the same aim, says Don Graham: “They each wanted to make The Post as great a paper as it could be.”
For Tom Hanks, who is also a writer, exploring the full complexity of Bradlee’s world was up there with his most gratifying challenges. He dove into research, going to personal sources as much as he could. “There's a lot of information on Ben Bradlee out there, not the least of which comes from his autobiography,” notes Hanks. “There’s tons of interview footage, but most importantly there are dozens of people who worked with him who I was able to talk to, including his wife Sally Quinn. We talked about who he was, why she loved him and what he was giving himself over to at The Post. Eventually I found and heard so much material on Ben that I was actually frustrated because I couldn’t put it all in the movie.”
Quinn, a journalist who became Bradlee’s third wife in 1978, says of their meeting: “I had breakfast with Tom and we talked about Ben. I said to him, ‘you have the one quality that Ben had that you can't invent or pretend to have: authenticity. You are absolutely who you are and Ben was absolutely who he was.’ And that was intrinsic. Without that quality, I don't think he could have done it.”
Yet the role was also rife with potential pitfalls, especially because Bradlee’s persona was twined with the cinematic legend of All The President’s Men, as played by Jason Robards. Hanks hails Robards' performance in that film but at the same time says he wanted to approach the man in a different way. “I was not intimidated because Jason had done it,” Hanks says. “But I was challenged by the problem of trying to find some other avenue into who the man was. I looked for a crack I could jump into that hadn’t been covered. It turned out to be this idea people emphasized to me that Ben knew how to command a room.”
Hanks continues: “Ben obviously had great journalistic instincts but he was also a great motivator of people, someone who could not just cajole his staff but also push them forward. He loved his job, but most of all he loved the effects of his job: to find the truth, get it right and put it out there to let people decide for themselves. He was also crazy competitive and so I could see how incredibly frustrated he would be by the fact that The New York Times got to the Pentagon Papers story first. He did not want to be the editor of a second-rate backwater newspaper.”
When Quinn came to the set, the degree to which Hanks had taken on Bradlee’s distinctive persona sparked deep emotions. “I saw Tom wearing his Ben wig, and I could see he’d really done his homework. He had all the ‘Ben movements’ down and he was doing this sort of cocky thing that Ben did, jutting his chin out. I looked at him and I just fell apart, I absolutely fell apart,” she recalls. “I started sobbing. I had no expectation this would happen, but then Steven saw me and he came running over and put his arms around me and then Meryl came over and then Tom came over. And Tom has this big barrel chest, so I just I put my head on his chest and it felt like Ben. I said to him, ‘I just feel he's come back to life.’”
Like Streep, Hanks was interested in evincing a male-female rapport between Bradlee and Graham built on reverence rather than romance. “In the course of these events, Ben gained so much affection for her and also respect for what she risked,” Hanks observes. “She had to earn her gravitas and in this moment, it was all on her. She was the boss and she had to make the call and that’s when she became the Kay Graham of legend. In light of all the doubt and danger she was facing, when Kay said ‘publish’ I think Ben was more than relieved. He felt an incredible rush of admiration for her.”
Collaborating with Streep in moments that defined two epic lives was particularly intense. Hanks describes: “There are moments between Ben and Kay that I will put up as some of the most harried moments that I've ever been asked to make manifest on a set. And the extraordinary thing about Meryl is that there's not a moment in which she is not reacting to you. She is bouncing off of everything that you give her. Yet none of it is pre-ordained. She's not trying to railroad you into a specific moment. She's trying to find the moment along with you. And man, that's a high country when you're working with somebody like that.”
The working relationship between Spielberg and Hanks was already strongly established from their prior collaborations on Bridge of Spies, Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal, but Hanks notes that the director never stops amazing him. “Steven is a great regulator of the tempo and tambour of a scene,” he says. “He will ignore moments that you think are important and come in specifically on moments that you didn't even see as being all that necessary. For example, at times he would come up to me and ask for a little more voice, or at other times he would come by and say, ‘don’t be so sure of yourself.’ He is able to do things with the story more than the sum of what comes out of us as actors. Steven remains at the absolute top of his game”
Spielberg says in turn: “This is the fifth film Tom and I have made as an actor-director partnership, and Tom continues to surprise me every time we work together. I didn't know he had this character in him, but he does and it was great to watch him create his version of Ben Bradlee.”
“Steven has such a love of actors,” veteran casting director Ellen Lewis says. “Right off, he knew he wanted Matthew Rhys to play Daniel Ellsberg, Bruce Greenwood for Robert McNamara and Sarah Paulson for Mrs. Bradlee, and that was a great start.” Ultimately, Spielberg and Lewis would assemble an ensemble, some 20 strong, that encompasses some of today’s most exciting actors, many of whom have been part of the television renaissance underway in the early part of the 21st Century.
They include: Alison Brie (GLOW), Carrie Coon (The Leftovers), David Cross (Mr. Show), Bruce Greenwood (American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson), Tracy Letts (Indignation), Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul), Sarah Paulson (American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson), Jesse Plemons (Bridge of Spies), Matthew Rhys (The Americans), Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me By Your Name), Bradley Whitford (Get Out) and Zach Woods (Silicon Valley). Also tapped from Broadway are Tony winner Jessie Mueller, along with Stark Sands, Rick Holmes, Pat Healy, Philip Casnoff, John Rue, Jennifer Dundas and Will Denton.
Alison Brie portrays Katharine Graham’s eldest child, Lally, who was just 23 during the events in the film. Brie loved playing a young woman who is not afraid to question or call out her mother but is also deeply devoted to supporting a woman she knows is breaking the mold of her generation. “Lally, like her mother, is fiercely intelligent. She's opinionated and she certainly doesn't hold back those opinions. She has a very candid relationship with Kay. That was so fun to play because she challenges her mother,” Brie explains. “She’s the kind of person who tells it like it is and sometimes that's just what her mother needs.”
Spielberg was gratified to have Brie in the role. “I followed her on Mad Men and saw her in Mud and I think she's an extraordinary actress so it was great to be able to cast her as Lally,” he says.
No matter their ties, mother and daughter have to navigate a major generation gap. Perhaps few generations have been as divided as the parents who came of age amid the Depression and children of the socially shifting 60s and 70s. “We're right in the midst of the women’s movement and that’s where Lally and her mother bump heads,” says Brie. “Kay grew up in a very traditional family but Lally really represents that younger generation who felt they had to be much more vocal about women’s rights.”
Brie was thrown right into it – taking on Streep as Graham on her first day on set – but says Streep set her at ease by diving into the scene so completely that Brie was entranced. “You really feel Meryl is living and breathing this person and she’s in the moment with you. When I looked in her eyes, I could see that Kay is constantly fluctuating between feeling confident and feeling terrified. It was thrilling to watch.”
Says Streep of the rapport between Lally and Kay: “You never feel quite as stupid as you do around your own children—because they will correct you on every point! I do love their mother-daughter relationship because it feels very real to me. And Alison brings a lot of feeling to the role.”
Carrie Coon joins the cast as the late Washington Post editorial writer Meg Greenfield, who was renowned for her sparkling wit and garnered the Pulitzer Prize in 1978. As another pioneering woman who made her way to the top of journalism in that male-dominated era, Greenfield bonded with Graham. She also penned a pivotal op-ed column in 1971, entitled “The Conflict of Two Great Estates: Some Reflections on the Pentagon Papers,” that analyzed the Supreme Court’s arguments in favor of the publication.
Coon felt particularly drawn to the script’s emphasis on Graham’s evolution. “What makes it so personally relevant to me is that it’s about a woman coming into her own under tremendous pressure. I was intrigued by how Kay’s leadership was forged in this crucible that was also such a critical time in our democracy.” She says of the link between Greenfield and Graham: “I think they became friends because you need allies in situations like this. They were both women in situations where men usually had the power.”
It wasn’t that easy to research Greenfield, who eschewed the spotlight. “She was never out there for her own self-promotion,” says Coon. “I had a very slim book she wrote called Washington, which she never finished, and there was also a beautiful introduction to the book written by Katharine Graham. I also had one interview that Meg did with Charlie Rose close to the end of her career after she’d won the Pulitzer.” But Coon also drew on stories that the film’s journalist consultants, as well as Graham’s grandson Will, shared. “Will told me some great stories about how Meg was an advocate for him throughout his life. Having personal contact like that is always so enriching when you're bringing a real person to life.”
David Cross, the stand-up comic turned actor recently seen in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (and who previously worked with co-star Bob Odenkirk on Mr. Show), plays another highly regarded member of The Washington Post team: managing editor Howard Simons. A reporter since the 1950s, Simon would later become the curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. Simons is also a key character in All The President’s Men, played by Martin Balsam in that film.
Cross was most intrigued by the script’s inside view of events usually seen from the outside. “I knew about the Pentagon Papers but I wasn’t aware of what happened at The Washington Post,” Cross says. “I knew nothing about Kay Graham’s ascension to a leadership role in the middle of it.”
Also exciting for Cross was how Hanks went out of his way to bond with the entire ensemble portraying The Post staff – rallying the troops much as Bradlee himself had done. “Tom’s genuineness was one of the keys to this being a fun, loose, copacetic set. Early on, he invited all the people playing editors and reporters to his place in New York for big lunch—which helped us build better relationships on screen. He’s a guy who remembers everybody’s names and asks everyone ‘how are you doing?’ There’s no pretense.”
Another historical figure who plays a role in The Post is one of the most controversial men of the 20th Century: General Robert S. McNamara, a Defense Secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, often considered the architect of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. McNamara was directly responsible for decisions expanding the war, the consequences of which would haunt him until his passing in 2009. He would ultimately issue an apology to Americans, saying, “We were wrong, terribly wrong.” It was also McNamara who first commissioned the study on the Vietnam War that became the Pentagon Papers. McNamara also considered Graham a dear friend, which only twisted the knot she faced even more.
Taking the role is Bruce Greenwood, known for playing American presidents in such films as Thirteen Days, National Treasure: Book of Secrets and Kingsman: The Golden Circle—and as Captain Pike in the rebooted Star Trek films and Gil Garcetti in The People Vs. O.J. Simpson. Greenwood notes that he saw McNamara as having a fatal flaw: “He was a force of nature who could not not make a decision. He’d rather make a bad decision than wait and make no decision, and he ran afoul of that mindset in his life.”
Greenwood found McNamara’s complicated relationship with Graham fascinating. “They had tremendous respect for one another. Bob had been there for her after her husband died and was a close friend in the hardest period of her life,” he notes. “But Kay also had a son [Don] who went to Vietnam and when she discovered that McNamara knew the war couldn’t be won militarily, I think she couldn’t reconcile that. Her son came home but tens of thousands of others didn’t, all while McNamara knew the U.S could not win. That had to feel like a betrayal.”
There was no lack of reading material on McNamara, and Greenwood especially relied on Deborah Shapley’s Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara. He also poured over footage. “Even after the production was over I kept studying McNamara, because I still wanted to understand him,” Greenwood confesses. “He was such a complex guy.”
Carrie Coon’s husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Tracy Letts (Homeland) embodies another pivotal force at The Post: Frederick “Fritz” Beebe, chairman of the board of The Washington Post Company in 1971. A former Wall Street lawyer who worked for The Post since 1933, Beebe is still considered a father figure of the paper today (he passed away at age 59 in 1973.) He was deeply trusted by Graham; and, though at first skeptical of the idea of publishing the Pentagon Papers, Beebe ultimately left the choice to the publisher. Says Letts: “Fritz was a very important presence in Kay’s life, an avuncular presence and a legal counsel, but also clearly accepting of her as the one running the company.”
As someone devoted to drama, Letts especially enjoyed observing Spielberg at work. “I love that he comes from the school where he’s still editing in his head. We didn’t have to do a lot of coverage because he knows exactly how he’s going to cut it all together. That fact that he is also a funny, sweet man who models inspiring behavior on set and embraces ensemble work, allowed us all to work to the best of our ability.”
Bob Odenkirk, famed as over-the-top criminal lawyer Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, takes a dramatic turn with another real-life role: the late Ben Bagdikian, an award-winning journalist who joined The Washington Post in 1970 – and whose past relationship with Daniel Ellsberg and the Rand Corporation led him to chase down his own copy of The Pentagon Papers. Later, Bagdikian would become the Dean of the University of California Berkeley School of Journalism.
“Ellsberg decided to trust Bagdikian to follow through on publishing the papers and to bring a second set of the papers to a Congressman who would read them into the Congressional Record, which is exactly what happened,” Odenkirk explains. Though Bagdikian knew he might face grave legal consequences, Odenkirk believes most people would support his decision to keep digging and reporting. “I thi