Ten months ago, when the script first landed on his desk, Donald Trump had just begun his attacks on news broadcaster CNN declaring them “fake news”.
Now, in the week of the film’s release, the US president is due to deliver “The Fake News Awards, those going to the most corrupt & biased of the Mainstream Media”.
Challenging times indeed. With the freedom of the press at the forefront of our minds, cinema will serve as a much-needed reminder of that the role of the press “was to serve the governed, not the governors”, as the US Supreme Court put it in 1971.
The critical message is perhaps why Spielberg was able to attract Hollywood’s top names at short notice. Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks take top billing, formulating Hollywood’s trinity who have, miraculously, never worked on a film together in their lengthy careers.
The day after The Post’s European premiere, Meryl and Tom are entertaining journalists in a five-star hotel with their expected charm. Both are at perfect ease with each other — a chemistry that forms the backbone of the movie in which Streep plays Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, and Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, its larger-than-life editor.
Together, they faced the decision on whether to report on the Pentagon Papers. If they did, they’d be faced with a potential prison sentence for breaching an injunction placed by the Nixon administration, and a court battle that would have shut down the paper if they lost. If they didn’t, it would have spoken volumes about the value of business concerns and government scare-mongering over their remit as a democratic pillar.
What were the Pentagon Papers?
- The Pentagon Papers was the name given to the US Department of Defense’s secret document that detailed the political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.
- The 7,000 page study, given the ordinary title ‘History of U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-66’, concluded that the war in Vietnam could not be won, a belief that had been kept from the public despite the continued loss of lives.
- It also revealed the true extent of military expansion to include the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, and that Congress had repeatedly been misled by the administrations of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson.
- Only 15 copies of the document were made, which were accessed by Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst for the RAND Corporation, a foreign policy think- tank.Believing the public had a right to know about the facts of the war, he leaked the document to Neil Sheehan in the New York Times in March 1971, who began the chain of events played out in The Post.
“[Freedom of press] comes down to the practitioners within that estate,” begins Hanks, before adopting the spirited accent we hear in movie. “Ben Bradlee would say things like, ‘well you got a story, but you don’t have the story, come back to me when you’ve got the story’. Meaning he wanted to aim at confirmable — almost empirical — truth. Because you cannot suffer by going out and printing the truth. That code of ethics, that discipline and desire in itself, comes down to an individual mandate that only the practitioners themselves can give.”
The movie also captures another pertinent social issue: the buck stopped with publisher Katharine Graham, despite women being otherwise absent from the newspaper industry at the time.
“What was interesting about the screenplay is that it fell to a woman to hold the line for press freedom at a time when women were excluded from any kind of leadership role in the press,” Streep says.
“There were no women reporters, or it was very unusual. Our friend Nora Ephron [the writer of When Harry Met Sally] to whom this film is dedicated, went to Newsweek to be a reporter and was told she was very welcome to be a researcher, a copy girl or secretary, but reporters were men.
‘So for the crucial decision to hold the line and risk everything, to have that fall to a woman who was alone in this position, that’s what interested me — both holding the line for press freedom, and the fact that it was a transitional moment for women.”
The transition continues today. The film industry-fostered #metoo movement has morphed into the Time’s Up movement, demanding the end of male abuse of dominance in Hollywood, and by example, other industries.
Streep’s leading role in this has not been without criticism; particularly from Rose McGowan, a victim of disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein, who accused Streep and actresses like her of being complicit in her silence (she tweeted: “You’ll accept a fake award breathlessly & affect no real change. I despise your hypocrisy.”). It’s an accusation Streep denies, and continues to lobby regardless.
“It’s a global seismic change that’s happening,” she says of the movement. “Somebody said it’s like an airplane being put together while it’s going down the runway, so it’s a little patshke [messy].
“It’s pretty interesting to be involved because there isn’t a leadership hierarchy, we don’t know who the top dog is. It’s like a hive of bees; everybody’s doing the good work, but it’s a moving thing, And that’s good, because it needs to light on many different industries and enterprises: government, military, church. The inequities and imbalance of power isn’t just in Hollywood.”
Under-representation of females in the film world is an issue that Tom Hanks has observed as the industry shifts around him, though his most memorable work has been with strong female peers like Penny Marshall (director of Big), the aforementioned Norah Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle) and Meg Ryan (a formidable counterpart in Sleepless In Seattle, Joe Versus the Volcano and You’ve Got Mail).
“I’m of a certain generation that quite frankly didn’t give too much of a shit about the gender — the person in charge was the person in charge,” he says. “What is going to come about because of this great Rubicon that’s been crossed, is in boardrooms and also in the artistic aspects of [filmmaking], you’re going to see a different proportion, more women are going to be awarded their position based on merits.
“For a while, why not just make it specific? There’s no reason not to say we need more women on this board, we need more women running these departments, we need more women in our company and the decision-making process, so it truly represents the numbers it is in our society.”
And it’s no surprise that next to him, nodding, Meryl Streep agrees.
- The Post is in cinemas on Friday