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The Post, Steven Spielberg’s thriller about The Washington Post’s attempts to publish the Pentagon Papers, which exposed government deception during the Vietnam War, premiered Thursday in a similarly scandalized Washington, about a mile from the newspaper’s former headquarters, where much of the action is set.
Released as critics of the Trump administration draw parallels with President Richard Nixon’s efforts, portrayed in the film, to impugn newspapers working to expose White House secrets — the film is exceptionally timely.
That’s no accident. Spielberg made it in just nine months after reading the script in what he said was a bid to advocate for a free press that is under attack.
“There’s a lot of excitement when you talk about stolen papers and government secrets and an administration attacking the press to stop the truth from being told,” Spielberg told THR as he entered the premiere, held at Washington’s Newseum. “That all happened in 1971, but it’s kind of kind of evocative of things that are also part of the current landscape. And so we thought that was a story that couldn’t wait to be told.”
The film’s stars were also eager to highlight the film’s contemporary relevance.
“The Nixon Administration at the time did a full-frontal assault on the First Amendment by literally trying to stop the press from publishing,” said Tom Hanks, who plays legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee.
“You can’t do that and still have the United States of America,” he said, adding, “I think the current administration and their like-minded allies are waging a guerrilla war on the First Amendment.”
Still, Spielberg and Hanks insisted the film does not pick a political side.
“This is not a partisan movie by a bunch of Hollywood filmmakers and actors,” Spielberg said. “This is a very patriotic film.”
The movie focuses on the relationship between Hank’s Bradlee, who is best known for overseeing the paper’s Watergate coverage a few years later, and Katharine Graham, the paper’s publisher who, as Spielberg explained, is the film’s primary protagonist and heroine.
Meryl Streep, who portrayed Graham in the film, said she was eager to portray the heiress who inherited the helm of the paper after the 1963 suicide of husband, Phil Graham, in the process becoming the first female publisher of a major American newspaper. Graham later described herself as wracked with anxiety that she was not up to the job.
“Our history about The Washington Post largely formed by All the President’s Men, in which she doesn’t appear,” Streep said. “And she was responsible for the courageous stance that the reporters were able to take.”
“I don’t think there’s a woman alive who hasn’t found herself at the pinnacle of her career and doesn’t feel in some way the imposter syndrome — insecurity,” she said. “[Graham] was on one of the most brilliant people of the 20th century, male or female,” Streep said, yet she still felt inadequate. “I relate to that. I think many women can. And that’s a shame. That’s a shame.”
Graham’s story may also seem apropos amid stories about mistreatment of women in media, but Liz Hannah, who wrote the script with an assist from Josh Singer, known for his work on 2015’s Spotlight, argued a story about a woman’s struggle in a male-dominated profession applies in any era.
“I don’t think it matters if it’s 1971 or 2017, or 1985,” Hannah said. “It’s always timely.”
Other premiere attendees included Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the documents to The New York Times and then the Post while working as an analyst at the RAND Corporation, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, and billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who owned a stake in a newspaper when the Pentagon Papers were published and became Graham’s confidante. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and C. Boyden Gray, White House Counsel under President George H.W. Bush, Fox News’ Chris Wallace and CBS News’ Major Garrett, were among political and media luminaries on hand.
Ellsberg, 86, who remains a government transparency activist, said he did not imagine in 1971 that exposing the papers would result in attending Hollywood premieres. “I thought I’d be in prison for life,” he told THR. “It’s a lot better being out here than being behind bars.”
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