At one point in Steven Spielberg’s new film The Post, we see flashes of Richard Nixon lumbering around the Oval Office. He’s berating the press, naturally. “Neil Sheehan [a reporter from the NY Times] is a son of a bitch and has been a son of a bitch for years.” Sound familiar? The movie points out a particularly bitter, and reoccurring battle between the government and the media: should government secrets, especially ones putting lives at stake, be public knowledge?
Moments like this make the movie, which takes place in 1971, feel like a scene out of yesterday’s news cycle. Organizers of the 29th Annual Palm Springs Film Festival thought it relevant too, and slated the feature to play on the opening night. Prior to the screening, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Spielberg, and producers Amy Pascal and Kristie Macosko Krieger, along with the writing duo Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, took to the stage for a live panel.
“This story had to be told,” Hannah said to a packed auditorium at Palm Springs High School, “I really related to this idea of a woman finding her voice.” In what felt like a dream, Hannah’s original script landed in the right hands and made its way to Spielberg, who called on Hanks to play Ben Bradlee, and Streep to play Katherine Graham. All three were on board, agreeing the time was right.
“I’ve been sitting around screaming at the TV for the past 17 months,” Spielberg explained. “I don’t have Facebook or Twitter. If I want someone to know how I feel, I’ve gotta call up the AP. So instead I did what I do best.”
Spielberg said, to him, the script seemed twofold: There was the story of Graham struggling to be heard in a world dominated by men. (In one scene, she can barely get a word in at her own board meeting.) Then there was the story of this B-team – led by the brazen editor Bradlee (played by Hanks). In the early ‘70s, some still considered The Washington Post a local paper. The publishing of the Pentagon Papers not only reinforced the first amendment, it exalted The Post. Mind you, this was just one year before they uncovered Watergate.
Streep also gravitated towards the script’s relevance and relatability. Graham’s insecurities, the dreadful imposter syndrome, the idea of a woman taking a stand at a pivotal moment in history – all hit home. She also couldn’t wait to work with Hanks and Spielberg.
As you might expect, the movie holds all the Spielbergian cinematics and pulsing energy a story like this demands. Spielberg shot it much like a newsroom – making last-minute decisions the day of filming, instilling the deadline pressure of getting the story done and done right. All in all, they only took about a year to make it.
“These two [Hanks and Spielberg] don’t rehearse much,” Streep recalls jokingly of filming, “I didn’t realize we were committing to the movie on the first take! But it worked. It was like jazz.”
The rhythm is evident in the performances, both of Streep and Hanks, whose chemistry flies off the screen despite being the first time they’ve ever done a movie together. The crowd ate it up, especially when a notoriously insecure Graham finally stood her ground, and told a particularly misogynistic board member to “f*ck off” (in a professional way).
It was a refreshing reminder, in times like these, just how much responsibility the press has to report the truth. As the Supreme Court ruling noted after granting The Post permission to publish: “the press was designed to serve the governed, not the governors.” Too bad, Trumpy.