“The Post” is a decidedly prescient historical drama. It comes during a time when the demarcation between the real and the unreal is fading away, a time when there is little to no “pure, unvarnished truth” that can’t be twisted and molded into something more dangerous or more fatal. In this quagmire of “fake news” and lies that the world seems to be sinking under, “The Post” establishes itself as an area of stable land that can function as a haven — an escape.
Set during the 1970s, the film follows the Washington Post’s publisher, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), and editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), as they risk their careers and their lives in a desperate bid to publish the Pentagon Papers — classified documents detailing a massive government conspiracy involving the war in Vietnam.
In a round table interview with The Daily Californian, director Steven Spielberg spoke of the central stakes propelling the film. “(The film) was just about a remarkable time and an audacious attempt for a president of the United States to attempt through the courts (to) silence our First Amendment rights — the right to publish, the right of the free press.”
The timeliness of “The Post” in today’s world — in particular, its retelling of a sitting president’s attempts to curb the freedom of the press — is fundamentally intentional on Spielberg’s part.
“I just felt a calling,” Spielberg said. “This is a story that gee is vaguely familiar to all of us in this day and age. … Maybe there will be some relevance, and there will be some people who will be interested in hearing this story in its own context of 1971 and the Nixon administration.”
For Spielberg, telling the story of “The Post” was important not only because of its historical relevance, but also because of what that story has to say about humanity, courage and the moral conviction needed to do what is right.
“We can no longer think of ourselves as on another hemisphere of the planet. We really now are only one hemisphere, and we all have to learn how to figure each other out in order to, you know, get along,” he said.
The embodiment of this conviction in “The Post” is the real-life publisher, Graham. Being the first female publisher in a traditionally male-dominated field was not an easy task for Graham, who combated the evils of the patriarchy head on and quickly emerged as the one of the major feminist icons of her time.
“(The film is) a piece of reflective history about how this woman, Katharine Graham, came into her own and found her voice, finally, and that voice led to a tremendous explosion of courage and faith in the free press,” Spielberg said.
Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox/Courtesy
Graham’s personality and her infallible determination are what persuaded Streep to take on the task of depicting her on celluloid. A key component of Streep’s portrayal is based on Graham’s personal autobiography, “Personal History.”
“(The book) identifies a certain time when the highly educated, wealthy women’s only expectation would be … to make her husband comfortable and her children as well”, Streep explained.
Streep was also fascinated by the staggering domino effect of Graham’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers. “We went right to Watergate from there, and we went to a world in which women had many many more opportunities and doors opened than when she (Graham) came to that position,” Streep said.
Besides illuminating the largely untold story of a prominent real-life figure, another striking feature of “The Post” is its collaboration between Hanks and Streep, a historic first for both actors.
Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox/Courtesy
Hanks spoke warmly of his iconic co-star — “The most exciting moments in a scene with Meryl are the pauses that she puts in, and you’re wondering what’s going to come out on the other side, and they’re never the same.”
For Streep, Hanks’s “comic sensibility” stood out during their scenes together. “Everything he does … even the most serious things … there’s a sense of something secretly funny,” she said. “There’s always a possibility that his wit will direct you in a certain way.”
Hanks further discussed how a good scene is developed. “The best scene possible is one in which everybody involved is throwing this metaphorical ball back and forth. … Sometimes it comes fast, and sometimes it comes slow, and there are all these ticks … that you glean from each other from the course of the scene.”
Ultimately, the end result of these complex moving pieces — the timely resonance, the powerhouse performances and the portrayal of unshakeable strength in the face of countless adversities — is a film that reminds us of journalism’s true essence: to fully display the raw, naked, messy truths of society and to function as the final beacon of revealing light against the incoming darkness.