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“It's a story about moral decisions”: The Post's screenwriters on journalism and history

Liz Hannah and Josh Singer discuss the Washington Post’s landmark decision on the Pentagon Papers and working with Steven Spielberg to bring it to the screen.

Meryl Streep in The Post
Meryl Streep in The Post.
Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The Post has been winning awards left and right leading up to its December 22 limited release — and many of those awards (and a Golden Globe nomination) have gone to its writers, Liz Hannah and Josh Singer.

The pair had never worked together prior to the film. The Post was Hannah’s first screenplay, written on spec (which means it wasn’t commissioned by a studio or producer); incredibly, it landed in the hands of former Sony studio head and powerhouse producer Amy Pascal. Soon, Steven Spielberg and an all-star cast were on board, and Josh Singer — who’d previously co-written the Oscar-winning screenplay for Spotlight — joined the project.

Hannah finished the first draft of The Post in the fall of 2016, shortly before the presidential election. Just over a year later, it’s coming to the big screen and generating Oscar buzz, as well as conversations about how its story — which centers on the decision by Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971 — relates to First Amendment struggles in 2017.

Graham’s decision to publish the documents in the Washington Post was a landmark event for both the newspaper and the country, landing the Post in front of the Supreme Court alongside the New York Times. And in many ways, it set the stage for the work that the Post would do in bringing down the Nixon administration during the Watergate scandal a couple years later.

Vox recently spoke with Hannah and Singer about their work on The Post, Graham and Bradlee’s relationship, and whether or not the new film is a rebuke to President Donald Trump’s attack on the free press.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

'The Post' Washington, DC Premiere
Liz Hannah and Josh Singer at the Washington, DC premiere of the film in December 2017.
Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images

Alissa Wilkinson

What was the genesis of The Post?

Liz Hannah

I had read Katharine Graham's memoir, Personal History, about five or six years ago, and I’d fallen in love with her voice and was interested in her life. I work in film, so I was like, "How is there not a movie about this woman?"

It turns out it was because she had 10 different lives, and there could be 10 different movies about her. So, as I was working on other things, I was researching this in the background and reading her book. And luckily, when you write something about journalists, they've all written a book about it. So there was a wealth of books and interviews to read.

It wasn't until two years ago, when I was reading Ben Bradlee's memoir, that I realized the story was a two-hander between the two of them, and that it was taking place in the week of the Pentagon Papers. It was a story of Katharine Graham finding her voice — almost her coming-of-age moment, a turning point in her life where she really was able to stand on her own two feet. So I wrote the spec screenplay the summer of 2016 and by amazing, amazing fortune it wound up on Amy Pascal's desk and she bought it around the last week of October.

Alissa Wilkinson

When did you come onto the project, Josh?

Josh Singer

I came on in March [2017]. Steven [Spielberg] and Meryl [Streep] and Tom [Hanks] all read the script on Presidents Day weekend, and immediately were taken by it. I got the call from Kristie Macosko Krieger, one of the best producers in the business, in early March. She said, "Will you come help out and help us build this house?"

I had some trepidation about going back into the journalism world, having been there so recently [with Spotlight]. And yet, I just was blown away by the script. I really was just totally, totally, totally knocked out by what Liz had done. It's the best spec script I think I've ever read. I was struck by how Liz had framed the story. Framing is, in some ways, the most important thing — where are you going to build the house, and what's it going to look like.

This story of the Pentagon Papers, which could be a very challenging, heavy story, she had made incredibly compelling by framing it through the narrative of Kay Graham. She’d made it intensely personal, all about that very, very challenging decision of whether to publish the papers. I was like, "Well, this is one of the best new voices I've read, maybe ever."

And I realized very quickly this is such a different story than Spotlight. This is not a reporter's story, per se; it's really about the publisher and the editor. It's a totally different territory in the same general world. The publisher was in one scene in Spotlight, and even [Boston Globe editor] Marty Baron — who's played by Liev Schreiber — is in maybe 30 minutes of the two-hour movie. This was much more focused on what the Globe guys would call “down front.”

Again, The Post was a character piece. Spotlight was more of a procedural, but this was a great character piece. I just got totally sucked in. It also didn't hurt to have not only the opportunity to work with Liz Hannah, but also Steven Spielberg, which is magic.

Alissa Wilkinson

The core of the movie, for me, is the relationship between Bradlee and Graham. What was their dynamic?

Liz Hannah

Yeah, we've been calling it an “unromantic love story.” It’s about the foundation of this iconic team in journalism — how they came together, and the respect between them. I don't know that we often see male/female relationships depicted without sexual tension or romanticization, versus what often happens in reality: a very close, respectful admiration for each other.

That was something that was really striking to us. Something I always found so fascinating about Ben is that he didn't care that Katharine Graham was a woman. It was 1971, and she was running this company, and he was never nervous about it because she was a woman. That was never an issue he had.

I think that's really interesting to show, because we still deal with some of those things right now. The challenge is that this was a relationship which had never been depicted on screen before. It was a very, very lauded relationship, so we wanted to make sure that we got it right, so that it was authentic, and so that people who knew Kay and Ben could watch it and recognize it and feel [that both figures] were given their due. That was what was amazing when Steven came on — we had an amazing amount of access to the Graham family and to the Bradlee family, and they were so helpful in making those moments between them authentic.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Hosts an Official Academy Screening of The Post
Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, and Steve Spielberg talk with moderator Joe Neumaier about The Post.
Photo by Lars Niki/Getty Images for The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences

Alissa Wilkinson

Were you reading about their relationship too?

Liz Hannah

In both Kay and Ben’s books, they talk about each other quite often. They were often quoted in interviews. They would just sort of sing each other's praises, and when they would speak about each other, you could see the real affection that they had for each other. Also, I think they both have the ability to be ballbusters, so there was a likeness between them. A lot came from research, and then all the little details and the nooks and crannies came from the families.

Josh Singer

The details we got helped reinforce that there was something lovely about this relationship. Ben was Kay's first hire. For a woman who was unsure of herself and her business decisions, she wasn't that unsure of herself when it came to the newsroom. She had hired this guy, and she really believed in him. They had this wonderful affection for each other and appreciation for each other. It really was like a marriage.

What was great about this is it was like a young marriage that is severely tested and comes out the other side stronger for it. And without the Pentagon Papers moment, do we really get Watergate? Do we really get the team will support Woodward and Bernstein in the work that they do? One of the great tragedies of All the President's Men is that Kay Graham isn't in it, but she played a huge role. You can't have that reporting without a publisher with that kind of backbone.

Liz Hannah

And without the trust that they had formed during this period.

Josh Singer


Alissa Wilkinson

A lot of people have been talking about The Post as a response to President Trump’s attacks on the press in 2017. It sounds like that wasn't in the forefront of your mind when you were first starting the project. Was there a point where you realized a connection?

Liz Hannah

Well, when I had initially written the spec, it was before the 2016 election. It was before the term "fake news" was floating around. The antagonistic relationship between the White House and the press was not happening on a daily basis. So, I was compelled to tell this story of a woman's voice, which for me is always relevant. It doesn't matter if it's 1971 or 1985 or 2017: The story of a woman working in a male-dominated profession, and being the only woman at the table, and having to try and find her voice — that to me is always relevant.

That was where it started. The role of the Pentagon Papers in our history and these individuals’ histories, the concept of journalistic responsibility to publish or not publish these papers, and the relationship between the government and the press was very important. It was always there. But we very intentionally did not try to change anything to reflect on what was happening currently. We were trying hard to just tell history, because history is cyclical. Sometimes it's good to learn from it. But we didn't want to editorialize anything.

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Kay Graham in The Post
Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Kay Graham in The Post.
Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox

Josh Singer

I don't think of The Post as a liberal movie. We don't think of it as celebrating liberal values. We think of it as celebrating American values — celebrating those values which are necessary for a democracy to function. A democracy, and certainly a presidential democracy, without a strong, free, and active press is problematic. We need the press to hold our leaders accountable.

In Spotlight, we talked about how so much local press has gone away. When we lose local papers, we have more corruption and graft in local government, because we just don't have the guys on the ground to hold them accountable. There used to be 20 reporters up in Sacramento for the LA Times; now they have three.

If you also start to really undermine the institution of the national press, you end up with that same problem on a national level. So, I think that institutional journalism is exceedingly important for our democracy.

And I think, as Liz said, that we stuck to the facts. We didn't need a lot of hyperbole or adjectives or adverbs. The facts of the Pentagon Papers are most damning for Lyndon B. Johnson, who's a Democratic icon. They're most damning for JFK, who's a Democratic icon. Nixon wanted to stop the papers from coming out because he wanted presidents to have more power.

Liz Hannah

JFK also knew he didn't really want them to go poking around that hard about what he was hiding.

Josh Singer

This cuts across party lines. So, I think what this movie really shows is why this kind of press is so important for democracy.

Alissa Wilkinson

What role do you think art, and more specifically movies like The Post, plays in this context? Do movies work in tandem with the press, or challenge the dominant narratives?

Liz Hannah

Whenever you look at a period in history that is wrought with negativity or tension, there’s also an influx of art as a response. Look at the 1970s and the Vietnam War and the type of art that came out of that. We have a responsibility as artists to try and generate a conversation.

I don't think either Josh or I ever want to stand on a soapbox. We don't want to preach. We don't want to make anybody think anything that they don't want to. I just want them to talk about it. I just want them to be provoked into having a conversation, whatever that conversation might be.

We have an ability as artists to reach people with a wide net. Art has an amazing role to play, even now — to reflect on where we are, reflect on where we've been, and consider where we would like to go, and maybe inspire some people to talk about that.

Josh Singer

We're not Shakespeare. But Shakespeare did write tragedies and comedies and histories. Steven says all the time, "History is such a great storyteller." I think we're all about telling great stories, and this is a great story, any way you cut it. To me, great stories have multiple themes that resonate and are powerful.

What I love about this story is that it's story about the First Amendment and the Fourth Estate, and it's a story about feminism, but really it's a story about moral decisions. In that way, it's not all that different from [Arthur Miller’s 1947 play] All My Sons. I also hesitate to compare us to Arthur Miller, who's the greatest American playwright maybe we've had — other than Tracy Letts [who plays Washington Post Chair Fritz Beebe], who's the most terrifying guy to write dialogue for in the world.

Liz Hannah

When there's a Pulitzer winner on set and it's not one of the writers, it's a little nerve-wracking for everybody!

Josh Singer

But what I would say is that question of, "Do I put my fellow man ahead of my own interests?" That is All My Sons’ question, and it’s one that keeps coming around and coming around. This is great history centered on a great moral decision. That's a great story. And if we learn something from it, if we provoke some good thought about what we should be doing in the country, if it's timely — all the more power to it.

But ultimately, if it doesn't work as a story, if it isn't a great piece of entertainment, nobody's going to pay money to buy tickets and go to the theater to see it. It's got to be a great story first.

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