About The Production
"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
"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
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 Expose 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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,"
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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