Tom Hanks Wouldn't Screen 'The Post' at the White House, Decries Attacks on First Amendment
"We have to decide when we take to the ramparts," the Oscar-winner tells THR, noting that he would not attend a screening of his new film at the White House if invited.
Tom Hanks plays famed newspaper editor Ben Bradlee in Steven Spielberg's upcoming drama The Post. Here, the two-time Oscar winner discusses the man he plays (and also knew); the issues the film raises; and why he would refuse to go to the White House for a screening of his movie.
When did you first read the script?
I read the script independent of Steven [Spielberg]: “Oh, Steven’s interested in this? Oh, sure! I'll read it, haste-post-haste.” I said: "Well, look, this is ridiculously timely, and the even better part of it is: this is the story of the week that [Washington Post publisher] Katharine Graham became Katharine Graham.” It had a very human element to it. I felt immediately that this was not just going to be a museum piece, but it was going to get into very, very human details of essentially these two people — Graham and Ben Bradlee. He had a love for the woman, because he had this great empathy for what she had been through. He had great respect for the class that she demonstrated through her entire life. But [he also] had a very strict determination of what a newspaper's job was. Ben knew the role of the Fourth Estate in society. So, all that stuff put together, I thought, was a pretty prescient story. It had an awful lot of parallels to 2017.
What was your first conversation with Steven about?
Steven's first thing, as I recall, was: "I want to know more about the Pentagon Papers themselves. I want to know what is in them. And we're going to have to figure out a way to make them understandable to the audience." From that came meetings with [the original whistle-blower] Daniel Ellsberg to fill out more of those details: What was in the Pentagon Papers? And what was really at stake in regards to the First Amendment, and how that played out in the newsroom, [with] a bunch of personalities who were slathering to get to the truth?
What surprised you about Ellsberg?
He was in the Marine Corps. He had been to Vietnam. He knew Henry Kissinger. He knew everybody. He wasn't just some anonymous guy who worked at the RAND Corporation. He had firsthand knowledge of what was going on. He was not just a whistle-blower who had seen pieces of paper and snuck them out to a copy machine.
You knew Ben Bradlee?
Bradlee had this very specific, almost contrary view: that Washington, D.C., was not just this one-business town. He viewed Washington as being not one of the most important cities in the world, [but] the most important city. He said: "You don't get it. We're covering the stories that are changing the world, regardless of what The New York Times puts in it." When he saw that The Times had this blockbuster of a story about how the American people had been lied to by trusted officials since before World War II, he was saying: "How come we're not doing our jobs? Why the fuck don't we have this story?" And then, of course, the Nixon administration, the Justice Department, says: "If you print these papers, you're going to be traitors," which complicated absolutely everything, because it happened in the week that the Washington Post went public. And who was going to be running it? Well, it turned out to be Katharine Graham, if she had the guts.
Did you ever meet her?
I met her. I'm not kidding. I met her the day before she died at that big conference up in Sun Valley, Idaho. There was everybody from guys who run every industry in the world as well as the president of Mexico and some guy from Russia who ended up getting tossed in jail. I was at a big table for lunch with [her]. And we talked about movies and popular culture and what have you. It was very pleasant. I was very much aware that she was Katharine Graham, and the last time we saw her, we said, “So long,” and went off to something else, and she drove off in her golf cart and she passed away that evening or the next morning.
Was she frail?
No, she didn't seem frail. She was in her 80s, so there's a reason you had a golf cart. You don't want to have to walk two-quarters-of-a-mile in order to get to the next seminar. She seemed incredibly sharp, just filled with personality. Curious. Interested. I guess anybody else would say that she had slowed down some, but I just saw a very vivacious older woman.
Did you spend time at the Post for the movie?
We went down together one day just before we started shooting. Meryl [Streep] was there and Steven and [producer] Kristie Macosko Krieger. I think Amy [Pascal, who also produced] was along as well. We went down and had a very nice tour. It's a very different building now, like walking into a high-tech demonstration. But we did meet people who had worked with Ben.
What did you find out that helped shape your performance?
That Ben loved the day. He loved the power. There's a moment where he would come by and say: "Ah, the fun." We put that into the movie. “Ah, the fun.” It was fun to put out this newspaper. It was a blast. Based on some other stuff that I saw, he [also] said, at one point: "You have to get it right. Because if you set it down in type at midnight and it goes out at 4 o'clock in the morning, you have to eat it for the next 24 hours. You can't just issue a quick walk-back. You have to explain that you got it wrong, why you got it wrong, and then you have to set it right.” And he never wanted to be in that position. He also owned the room when he walked into it. He was an extremely confident guy; he was aware of his physique. He knew how he filled out not only his wardrobe, but the room that he was in. And they all, quite frankly, loved him. Even when it came to bitter fights with him. He was supremely honest and demanding of himself, as much as anybody else.
What's the significance of this story today?
When you're not just celebrating the nostalgia of history, it comes down to human behavior. And human behavior never changes. It's always the same. Vanity of vanity, nothing new under the sun. The Nixon administration tried to stop the story from being published. They took on the First Amendment by saying: "You can't tell that story, and if you do, we're going to threaten you." That is going on, of course, right now.
In what way?
There's a number of ways that you can assault the First Amendment. Back in 1971, it was done in such a boldfaced way that a newspaper, The New York Times, was stopped from publishing a story. And it was threatened; anybody who was going to try to publish that story was going to go to jail for treason. Treason, my friend. That's the stuff that goes on with tin-pot dictators and communist tyrants and third-world banana republics. [But] I'd have to say, as Steven Spielberg said: "The truth is making a comeback."
What troubles you about the way the press is treated today?
There used to be this concept, [as the later Senator] Daniel Moynihan used to say: "You're entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts." Facts are irrefutable. Well, it turns out people are saying: "No, facts are not irrefutable. We can decide whatever facts that we want, that we would like." Right now, without a doubt, there are people in power trying to — if not quash or stop the right to publication, [then at least] denigrate it to the point [where] they are saying there is no truth to it whatsoever. And there are stories out there that are the truth, [in] organs of the Fourth Estate like the New York Times and the Washington Post.
If Donald Trump wanted you to screen this movie at the White House, would you go?
That's an interesting question. I don't think I would. Because I think that at some point — look, I didn't think things were going to be this way last November. I would not have been able to imagine that we would be living in a country where neo-Nazis are doing torchlight parades in Charlottesville [Va.] and jokes about Pocahontas are being made in front of the Navajo code talkers. And individually we have to decide when we take to the ramparts. You don't take to the ramparts necessarily right away, but you do have to start weighing things. You may think: "You know what? I think now is the time." This is the moment where, in some ways, our personal choices are going to have to reflect our opinions. We have to start voting, actually, before the election. So, I would probably vote not to go.