The Post Isn’t A Spotlight-Type Thing About The Pentagon Papers

Last night I read a recent draft of Liz Hannah‘s script for The Post, the forthcoming 20th Century Fox film about the Pentagon Papers crisis of 1971. It’s a good script, but my initial dream that it might be some kind of definitive Pentagon Papers saga or a tense newsroom thriller along the lines of Spotlight or All The President’s Men turned out to be…uhm, just that.

The Post, which will topline Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, will begin filming in May under director Steven Spielberg and be released in December. It’s about how Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham (Streep), who initially saw herself as less than ideally suited to the task and was little more than a blandly embedded figure in Washington social circles, gradually grew some courage and a sense of journalistic purpose during the Pentagon Papers episode, which transpired over a 17-day period in June 1971.

Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, exec editor Ben Bradlee in the early ’70s.

Hannah’s script is about a testy, at times caustic relationship between Graham and exec editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) when the N.Y. Times published Neil Sheehan‘s report about Daniel Ellsberg‘s Pentagon Papers documents (which proved that the stated motives and justifications for the Vietnam War were dishonest and deceptive) and the Post debated whether to publish a trove of similar docs, also from Ellsberg, and stand up to the Nixon administration’s legal challenges and threats.

The Post is basically a middle-aged woman’s self-empowerment saga. The project was hatched and nurtured along by producer Amy Pascal.

I wrote the following to a critic friend this morning: “I had no idea Mrs. Graham was so mushy-minded, such a slow-boater, so reluctant to accept the responsibility of first-rate, big-city journalism…even after the N.Y. Times had published the Pentagon Papers, the Washington Post (not Bradlee but Graham, the lawyers and others) was still hesitating, still unsure about whether to publish more of the same…the draft I read is 118 pages and for over 70 pages my constant thought was ‘when is Mrs. Graham going to wake up and man up?’

“She finally does, of course, but it takes her long enough. And poor, exasperated Bradlee trying to goad her along…he’s never less than scrappy and tough but I felt for the poor guy.”

The following two passages from Graham’s Wikipage sums up what The Post is basically about:

Graham’s candidly written “Personal History,” published in 1998, states that (a) “As the only woman to be in such a high position at a publishing company, [Mrs. Graham] had no female role models and had difficulty being taken seriously by many of her male colleagues and employees”, but that (b) “The convergence of the women’s movement with Graham’s ascension to power at the Post brought about changes in Graham’s attitude and also led her to promote gender equality within her company.”

The Post is a well-written, reasonably compelling story as far as it goes, but by focusing on Graham’s personal tale rather than the meat and marrow of the Pentagon Papers saga it half-sidesteps what could have been a fascinating, gripping procedural-slash-thriller about one of the toughest and proudest episodes in big-time American journalism.

It portrays a pivotal moment not just for Graham but the Washington Post, which prior to the Pentagon Papers episode had been regarded as a relatively rote and lackluster newspaper compared to the N.Y. Times, but Spotlight, it ain’t. And it damn sure isn’t All The President’s Men.

It’s a story about a wealthy, privileged, bordering-on-timid woman with self-esteem issues who gradually decides to inch her way into growing a journalistic backbone.

It’s nicely written with good story structure — the existence and content of the Pentagon Papers aren’t revealed until page 33 or so, and Graham doesn’t really find her inner steel until the last third — but what does this have to do with 2017 other than providing a reminder that we need good, tough journalism in the age of Trump?

I’m wondering to what degree average moviegoers will relate to a story of a woman born into wealth and power in 1917, who married in 1940 and lived for many years in the shadow of her husband (Phil Graham, who served as Post publisher from 1946 until his suicide in ’63) and was in her mid 50s when American feminism was beginning to be heard and felt in the early ’70s, etc. The context is arcane and dated, to say the least.

Yes, Streep will probably be Best Actress nominated but what else is new? I could easily see Hanks landing one also, although he’ll have to overcome fond memories of Jason Robards‘ Bradlee performance in All The President’s Men.

(l. to. r) Graham, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, Post editor Howard Simons, Bradlee.
  • And here I thought it was going to be a middle-aged man’s self-empowerment saga.

    • Are you really and truly that stupid? Implying that my reservations about the script are sexist & mansplainy? I explained very carefully what the whole things’s about and you respond with cheap snark. God, you’re an asshole.

      • It’s not snark, it’s efficiency. You’re basically one step away from writing off one of the most important journalistic stories in American history as irrelevant once you find out the protagonist is a woman? Because she has a privileged background, like Bradlee and Woodward? Because she’s not assertive enough and needs to “man up,” like Lester Burnham and Calvin Jarrett and King George VI? We all know how badly those characters went over with audiences.

  • York Durden

    Maybe it takes 70 pages because the writer chose to make that her character arc, ie, to wake up to her journalistic responsibility, show courage, etc…? The narrative journey has to have somewhere redemptive to go and be allowed time to get there. Just sayin.

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  • Lucky Frizzel

    I can’t get behind, and don’t think anyone else should either, trying to learn history from filmic recreations, much less their scripts, posters, trailers, or online buzz. I think they’re purely for entertainment purposes, and any off-label usage ought to be prohibited. It’s difficult enough gleaning hard news from hard news sources. Re-enactments never do the subject authentic justice.

  • Grampappy Amos

    “…when is Mrs. Graham going to wake up and man up?’..”

    I presume she didn’t want to get her tit in a ringer

    • John Mitchell‘s phrase was “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat ringer if that’s published,” etc.

  • K. Bowen

    Nobody wants to watch this. I guess that with Trump in command, Hollywood can start making movies about how bad a president is again. Instead of making a celebratory movie about Woodrow Wilson, the worst president in the history of the United States.

    • THX11384EB

      Nobody wants to watch a Spielberg movie starring Hanks and Streep? Okay then.

      • Reverent and free

        Bridge of Spies was a decent hit. It was ridiculed as a Baby Boomer movie, but it got boomers out to see it.

    • Pertwillaby

      Well said. Spielberg should focus all his energy on Indy 5. It has to be the best Indiana Jones movie since Raiders, if he wants redemption.

      • Charles Peligro

        No, he should NOT focus any energy on Indy 5.

        • Professor Wagstaff

          If anything, he should focus energy on eradicating Indy 4.

        • Dr. New Jersey

          The best description I’ve ever heard of the appeal of Raiders and the original trilogy is that people want to be Indy like they wanted to be Bond, for those two hours. No one wants to be an old man with a sore back huffing through “adventures”.

      • Fred’s Hand

        I want to agree with this but I don’t see any chance for redemption as long as Disney’s in the mix.

  • Pertwillaby

    Will someone please tell Mr. Spielberg to grab the script of The Post with his left hand and the screenplay of Edgardo Mortara with his right one, walk to the nearest trash can, discard them, and then go back focusing ALL his energy on Indian Jones 5?

    • Hahlo. My name is Edgardo Mortara. You trashed my script. Prepare to meet Kali…IN HELL!

    • alexandercoleman

      He made War of the Worlds and Munich in one calendar year.

      He can multitask.

    • childerolandusa

      Isn’t he doing Indy 5 before Edgardo Mortara?

      • alexandercoleman

        Probably, but it’s not for certain yet.

  • Raygo

    After reading Graham’s Wiki page (and her husband’s), their marriage, his alcoholism and mental illness, subsequent suicide, and her taking over at the Post all seem a lot more interesting.

  • Charles Peligro

    Starting the takedown before it’s even in production? I guess it’s never too early when Beardo is involved.

    • Not a Beardo thing — the script is the script. It’s not bad, reasonably decent, well written.

  • Eric

    Spielberg was always best at set pieces, and hasn’t had one since… Munich?

    Didn’t see War Horse so can’t speak to it, but his movies have just been full of talk since.

    • Jordan Ruimy

      I wholeheartedly agree with you. I actually thought the 2000s was his best decade ever as a filmmaker (A.I, Minority Report, Munich, War of the Worlds, Catch Me If You Can). He’s been stuck in a serious rut this decade, talky, self-aggrandizing stuff.

    • Magga

      Did you see Tintin? It has some great set-pieces, but it’s animation of course. The long, wordless “chase” at the beginning of Bridge of Spies is one of his better set-pieces IMO

      • Eric

        I forgot all about Tintin. Were there two parts even?

  • Michael

    I wouldn’t bet on hanks (Hanks will do Hanks) no matter what movie his in ……….his just lazy

    Hanks brilliant roles were Big , Philadelphia , Forrest Gump ( i know you hate that movie ) , Apollo 13 , Saving private ryan and Cast Away

  • Michael

    Spielberg needs to Update His actors every now and then you just cant cast the same actor over and over again its boring cast Mandy Patinkin , kevin spacy , martin sheen , William Hurt or Michael Keaton for ben bradlee

    Take a break from hanks cast someone else

  • Cinesnatch

    What are the big supporting roles?