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.
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.”
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.”
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—Meryl Streep and Tom 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.
The Post opens in theaters December 22nd.